Entries linking to beshrew
word-forming element of verbs and nouns from verbs, with a wide range of meaning: "about, around; thoroughly, completely; to make, cause, seem; to provide with; at, on, to, for;" from Old English be- "about, around, on all sides" (the unstressed form of bi "by;" see by (prep.)). The form has remained by- in stressed positions and in some more modern formations (bylaw, bygones, bystander).
The Old English prefix also was used to make transitive verbs and as a privative prefix (as in behead). The sense "on all sides, all about" naturally grew to include intensive uses (as in bespatter "spatter about," therefore "spatter very much," besprinkle, etc.). Be- also can be causative, or have just about any sense required. The prefix was productive 16c.-17c. in forming useful words, many of which have not survived, such as bethwack "to thrash soundly" (1550s) and betongue "to assail in speech, to scold" (1630s).
[small insectivorous mammal; malignant woman], Middle English shreue, which is recorded only in the sense of "rascal, evil-doer; scolding woman; undisciplined child;" which is apparently from Old English screawa "shrew-mouse," a word of uncertain origin.
OED calls the word's absence in the "animal" sense from Old English to the 16c. "remarkable." It gives the two words separate entries (2nd ed. print) and speculates that the "malignant person" sense might be original. Perhaps it is from Proto-Germanic *skraw-, from PIE *skreu- "to cut; cutting tool" (see shred (n.)), in reference to the shrew's pointed snout. An alternative Old English word for it was scirfemus, from sceorfan "to gnaw." Middle English Compendium points to Middle High German shröuwel, schrowel, schrewel "devil."
The specific meaning "peevish, malignant, clamorous, spiteful, vexatious, turbulent woman" [Johnson's definition] is c. 1300, from earlier sense of "spiteful person" (male or female), mid-13c., which is traditionally said to derive from some supposed malignant influence of the animal, which was once believed to have a venomous bite and was held in superstitious dread (compare beshrew). Shrews were paired with sheep from 1560s through 17c. as the contrasting types of wives.
updated on May 21, 2017