Language Corner

On your behoof

April 19, 2021
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Business Day recently published a piece about the travel industry. “It naturally behoves the major stakeholders,” it said, “to become more creative in developing services that encourage travel.” In The Economist, a piece about design bias said “it would behove firms to build diversity into their designs from the very outset.” And a letter to the editor in The Advertiser about animal welfare said “It behoves concerned people to actively lobby our elected representatives to make legislative changes for the myriad of animal-protection issues we have to be enacted.”

Funny that three news publications had the same typo for “behoove,” and within a week at that.

Except it is not a typo. Business Day is a South African newspaper. The Advertiser is in South Australia. And The Economist, while it has a US staff and a large US circulation, is a British publication. For them, “behove” is the correct spelling.

In context, you can see that “behove” is used to mean “it would be smart for you to do this.” But the original “behove,” which entered English about 890, meant “To have use for or need of, to require; to be in want of,” says the Oxford English Dictionary.

It morphed over the years: Merriam-Webster (an American dictionary) defines “behoove” as a transitive verb meaning “to be necessary, proper, or advantageous for,” and an intransitive verb meaning “to be necessary, fit, or proper.” That’s how we use it today: “It’s to your advantage” to do something, or “It is only right” that you do something.

Somewhere along the line, Americans added an extra “o” to “behove.” (The OED, a British dictionary, says “The spelling with -oo is now restricted to the United States.”) “Historically, it rhymes with move, prove,” the OED says, “but being now mainly a literary word, it is generally made to rhyme with rove, grove, by those who know it only in books.” If you spell it the way you hear it, sometimes the spelling sticks.

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Nowadays, “beho(o)ve” almost always appears with the impersonal “it” in front of it and the preposition “to” after it. (“It behooves you to finish reading this column.”)

Michael Quinion, a British lexicographer who wrote the World Wide Words blog for 20 years, said this of “behove:” “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.…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.”

A related word, and possibly more pompous, is “behoof,” which has nothing to do with the feet of animals. It is merely the noun form of “behoove,” and Merriam-Webster calls it a synonym for “advantage, profit.” The OED says it means “Use, benefit, advantage.” In the US, at least, it appears chiefly in legal documents, as in this federal appeals court case from 2020: “Angel made menacing statements to both the petitioner and his father only after they refused to leverage their day-to-day access to potential drug clientele to Angel’s behoof.”

Unlike its cousin “behove,” “behoof” entered English, around the twelfth century, with two “o’s” and has kept them. Both arise from the same word, the Old English “bihóf,” which is related to “heave.”

What? How does a word like “heave,” which we use akin to an effort to move something, relate to something that’s to your advantage?

The OED, again, in its “behoof” entry: “The original sense seems to have been either, ‘taking in, reception, acquisition,’ whence ‘gain, advantage,’ or ‘taking away, taking to oneself, taking the use of,’ whence ‘use.’”

Sometimes, it behoves a writer to not follow a word’s origin too far.

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