A columnist in my daily paper recently wrote, “My dear Britain, it behoves me to inform you that first, I don’t exactly know what the word “behoves” means, but I do enjoy using it.” It behoves me to make good this deficiency by explaining that it expresses a duty and may be translated as “is required of” or “is incumbent upon”.
When James Murray wrote the definition for the word in what was then The New English Dictionary on Historical Principles (only much later the Oxford English Dictionary) he described it as “mainly a literary word”. Some modern stylists have called it archaic or a fossil, but it’s some way from that, though almost always in writing and very rarely in the spoken language. It is a little better known in the US, where the behoove spelling is standard. British pundits and politicians feel that the occasional behove adds a statesmanlike and elevated air to their utterances, though they risk sounding old-fashioned and pompous.
The origin is Old English behōfian, from bihōf, utility, whose adjective is bihóflíc, useful or necessary. The main sense of the verb was need or necessity.
It’s one of those few expressions in modern English that is almost always impersonal. You or I, or even they, do not generally behove. The empty agent it is usually in charge of the verb. Behove can also appear with negative sense, for which a common marker word in the UK is ill. Ill behoves implies acting inappropriately or improperly, as in this editorial pronouncement from a Sunday newspaper:
In an age of genuine austerity, it ill behoves those who have enough cash to eat as they wish to stand in judgment on those who do not.
The Observer, 10 Feb. 2013.
Americans use this form only rarely, but use behoove with a wider range of modifying words, such as would, might and certainly.