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Q From Paul Mills: Is there such a word as besmitten?

A Interesting question. I can find 100+ examples online (and even a few in newspaper archives), my wife remembers her aunt saying it 50 years ago, and I’d be happy with it if it turned up in something I was reading. The examples I found show people using it naturally, not marking it as a strange or unusual word. On the other hand, I can’t find any examples in my collection of historical electronic texts and it’s not in any dictionary I’ve consulted.

It obviously means “strongly attracted to (someone)”, as in the Palm Beach Post of 12 August 2001: “At home, the practical man’s fiancée was equally besmitten with BS Boy inside of three minutes”. And it has turned up twice recently in the Guardian, as this from the issue of 13 April 2002: “Dogs have 78 chromosomes — twice the number of human beings — which accounts for their infinite-seeming variety since the first one was found 14,000 years ago, buried with some besmitten pet-owner”.

Putting all that together, what seems to be happening is that users are unconsciously creating it from smitten by analogy, most probably on the model of beguiled, bedazzled, or besotted, the last of these being very close in sense. They unconsciously know that one function of the prefix be- is to intensify the action of an existing verb or participle, so making besmitten a more powerful version of smitten.

What I find intriguing is that be- is almost totally defunct as a word-forming prefix, so that if besmitten really is new, it’s a rare beast. Actually, it isn’t really new, since besmitan was very common in Old English more than a thousand years ago. However, it went out of use so long ago that modern users are recreating it anew.

Is there such a word? Well, logically yes, since there’s evidence of its existence. But what you’re really asking, I presume, is whether it’s OK to use it. I’d be cautious — in conversation or informal writing it would probably pass unnoticed, but in more formal situations you lay yourself open to people classing it as an error rather than as a creative reinvention of an archaic form.

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Page created 12 Jul 2003