Friday, May 7, 2010

At my own behest

I've noticed a kind of common theme here--I use a lot of words when writing that I don't throw around so casually in everyday speech. Well, maybe I do--the fact is I don't have many permanent records of things I say to people on the fly. (Thank the dear lord.) "At the behest of"  is one of the things that I think it's pretty unlikely I'd say to someone who was questioning why I did something at my job, say, but might throw into some written form without too much problem.

I know, I know--there's many that wouldn't.

Once again, I think this is a phrase I can use more or less properly, but at a deeper level, have no idea what I'm really saying. What is that "be-" prefix all about anyway? And where else in the English language does "hest" attach itself? I can't think of any other words that it's a part of. Can you?

I think of "behest" as being a bit like "request", but stronger. Like, say, the queen 'requests' you do something. But there is also a flavor of  "on the authority of" and "on behalf of". As is usual with these posts, the more I say, the less I know. So let's find out what's what...

Well, I think my sense of it is in the general ballpark. That "be-" prefix is a bit tricky, though. It can mean "thoroughly" or "to make seem" or "to provide with". I'll let you puzzle that part out for yourself, but basically, "behest" means an authoritative command or urgent request, and stems from the Middle English bihest, or vow.

What's interesting to me is that behest contains both sides of the equation: it is the vow or promise, but also the request or command. Which makes it ideal for diplomacy and other negotiations. It's a word that contains the gray areas. I think what it really connotates or stems from is a sense of preexisting arrangements. It's about relations that are already agreed upon. "At the king's behest", for example, assumes a relation in which the king has the right to ask certain things and the subject feels him or herself right or at least obligated to fulfill these requests.

The following video should make this all clear. Of course, it will probably be a lot clearer if you understand Hindi. (Which is pure conjecture on my part, by the way.)


  1. Seana
    I like this one. Behest is on old word according to all the etymologies, and does seem to mean both a vow and a command. But the more you think about it, the more 'at my own behest' doesn't seem to make sense. Could it be that this is a confusion with 'on my own behalf'?

  2. No, you're right, Philip, it doesn't make any sense at all. It really only works if you have a split personality, which I'll leave it to others to decide in this case. But you can think of it as kind of a zen koan type thing if it makes you feel better about it.

    I just started reading The Lighthouse Land, which I know you'll be pleased to hear. Actually, I started it once before, but other reading obligations took me away, so let's hope I get a bit further this time.

  3. Glad to hear you're on to Lighthouse Land. There are so many local references - but be warned. If you ask me about them you'll probably be drowned under information overload at your own behest (if not hoisted on your own petard).

  4. Thanks, Philip. I'll take my chances.

  5. Seana

    I was watching the BBC election night coverage and I thought of you.

    A Scottish reporter was riding with Nick Clegg in a train and she described Nick as being "banjaxed". The BBC anchor has no clue what she was talking about.

  6. Perfect. I don't even know if I should feel insulted or not.

  7. Seana
    Sounds like a perfect confession of ignorance. So your next posting should be 'banjaxed' - which incidentally is the title of Terry Wogan's autobiography. It will be to your credit if you've never heard of Terry Wogan.

  8. All right--banjaxed it will be. I think I have heard of Terry Wogan, but I don't know anything about him, so that should count for something.