This post is not as philosophical as you would think from the title. Philological, maybe, but not philosophical. Also not as self-flagellating as the title could possibly imply, either. Not self-flagellating at all. It’s just, sometimes I wonder how we get certain words and expressions. You know?
Last Saturday was, apparently, Extra Horrible Roadkill Day, because in the same stretch of less-than-a-mile-long road, I saw both a dead cat (fully intact) and a dead squirrel. The dead cat made me sadder, but the squirrel was far and away more disgusting, and this is because at first I didn’t realise it was a squirrel–or even exactly that it was roadkill.
I was approximating the actual speed limit on that road, and not really thinking about too much–certainly not dead squirrels–and then I noticed there was something in the middle of my lane that was very small . . . and kind of roundish . . . and it looked like it might be sort of a very short tube . . . and actually, it seemed to be incredibly bloody . . . and then I had driven over it (not with the wheels touching it–just over it–you know) and then all of a sudden there was a strung-out squirrel body . . . without a head. Because the head was the first thing.
In my mind, I was registering all this in words (what–you don’t do that?) and at first the word I thought was beheaded, and then I decided that decapitated was more accurate to the situation, but it got me thinking about the word beheaded after that. I started wondering why, when in every other word I could think of that started with the prefix be-, there’s more of a sense of adding something to something else, we say beheaded when we mean that someone’s head is taken away? Bemused seems to mean adding the need to muse (“things that make you go hmmm”). Bespectacled means with spectacles. Benighted means someone’s understanding or reasoning is dulled–night is metaphorically added. Behooved is certainly a weird one which needs explaining of another sort, but still. It may not mean that hooves are added, but it certainly doesn’t mean they’re taken away either.
So I’m wondering. Why don’t we say deheaded? Did some little kid learning her alphabet write the d backwards, and we’ve been beheading ever since?