To beknight, or not to benight

A “night” is dark. A “knight” is heroic. It’s difficult to confuse the two. But add the prefix “be-,” and one inadvertently becomes the other.

“Benight” as a verb means “to overtake by darkness,” whether it’s physical, moral, or intellectual, according to the Merriam-Webster Unabridged dictionary. “Beknight” means to make someone a knight. Yet “beknight” and its adjectival form, “beknighted,” is too often used when “benight/benighted” is meant. Someone who is “benighted” is being overwhelmed with obstacles, grief, something. Someone who is “beknighted” is being hailed for doing good or some service. One is negative, the other positive. 

It’s somewhat counterintuitive that many of the Nexis hits for “beknighted” when “benighted” was meant are in publications based in the British tradition, where they have actual “knights.” The Age in Melbourne, Australia, for example wrote early this year that the British tennis player Andy Murray “was beknighted by back surgery” in the 2014 season. In discussing a storyteller in a play, The Chorley Guardian in Britain wrote of “those ill-beknighted souls who populate his tales of terror.” (Apparently it’s not bad enough that those poor souls were set upon. They have to be “ill” as well.) Though, to be fair, The Telegraph in London also correctly referred to “the beknighted four-time Olympic gold medallist and 2012 Tour de France champion,” Sir Bradley Wiggins.

But it happens in the United States as well. An article talking about people who grew up poor spoke of store credit as “a harbinger of less beknighted things to come.” A letter to the editor bemoaned “the beknighted utopianism from which our country has suffered so much.”

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While it does not happen frequently, when it does, the confusion between “benighted” and “beknighted” can really change a reader’s perception. When a columnist wrote “Breaking news: Conservative organizations suddenly have found common cause with one of their favorite objects of contempt—the beknighted Mainstream Media,” did she mean the poor, trodden-upon media, or the noble media?

“Benight” is an obscure enough verb that it doesn’t rate an entry of its own in many major dictionaries, though the adjectival form, “benighted,” is there. “Beknight/beknighted” rarely appear in US dictionaries at all. Those should be signals that they are uncommon enough words that perhaps readers won’t know them, either.

That “be-” prefix often sounds so medieval in any event. It means “surround,” “cause,” or “affect,” all in a way that is complete or excessive. The prefix is in “beset,” a journalism word that means “to trouble,” and in “unbeknownst,” which means “without the knowledge of someone or something.” “Unbeknownst” sounds like something a knight would say, so should be avoided in all but the most heraldic situations.

The “be-” prefix lives in more common words as well, like “bedazzle,” “befall,” “begrudge,” and “beguile,” where it doesn’t appear so out of place. Those have no homophones, though, to trip up a writer searching for a highfalutin word.

When you’re betrying to bemake an impression, beware and bethink before you be.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.