Head to toe woe.

Dear Word Detective: I recently was told that I was “besmirching” a friend of mine. When I asked the speaker if he knew what that meant, he said, “No, but, you said it last week and I thought it meant ‘bad’.” I told him that’s pretty much it. Now I am going crazy trying to figure out what a “smirch” is. Please help. — Anthony Jolley.

That’s a good question, and it’s nice to hear that folks out there are debating the meaning, and puzzling over the derivation, of words. Eventually, of course, many of you end up here, so in a sense I guess I’m doing technical support for the English language, just like those nice folks you call when your Dell plays dead. The difference is that I won’t be asking you to reformat your brain and reinstall English 101 unless it’s absolutely necessary. Please hold.

OK, so we have a problem with “besmirch.” That’s a shame, because “besmirch” is one of our most tested and reliable words, having been employed in the English language for more than four centuries. The first recorded use of “besmirch” in print, in fact, was in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” in 1602, although he used an early version of the word and spelled it, along with a lot of other things, rather strangely (“And now no soyle nor cautell doth besmerch the vertue of his feare”).

Today we use “besmirch” to mean “sully” or “tarnish,” most often in a figurative sense, and almost always in the idiom “to besmirch someone’s reputation,” meaning to damage their public image or popularity. In a literal sense, however, “to besmirch” means to soil or discolor with mud, soot or other dirt. But this literal use is extremely rare, and I can’t imagine it being used as anything but a mock affectation (“I say, Madame, your dreadful little dog has besmirched my new boots”).

You ask what a “smirch” might be, and there is indeed a noun “smirch” meaning “a smudge, stain or dirty mark” (and, figuratively, “a moral stain or flaw”). But that noun, which appeared around 1688, is more recent than the verb “besmirch.” More importantly, it is far younger than the verb “to smirch” (no “be”), which appeared way back in 1495 and which gave us both the verb “to besmirch” and the noun form “smirch.” This verb “to smirch,” which lies at the root of all this tarnishing and sullying, comes from the Old French “esmorcher,” which meant to torture or torment, especially by the application of hot metal objects. The change in sense from “burn” to “dirty” may have had to do with the marks left on the victim by the torture.

So, since we already had “smirch” as a verb meaning essentially the same thing as “besmirch,” where did the “be” come from? “Be” is a very common prefix in English, meaning a variety of different things in different contexts. In the case of “besmirch,” it carries the meaning of “around or all over,” so to “besmirch” someone is not merely to “smirch” them, but to give them a full-body “smirching.”

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