behind (adv.) Old English behindan "behind, after,"
from bi "by" + hindan "from behind" (see hind (adj.)).

hindan already meant "from behind", and It doesn't make sense to say: by from behind.
So why was bi "by" added as a prefix? How did bi "by" contribute to 'behind'?

Unlike Etymonline above, OED doesn't pinpoint the matching definition of the prefix be-.

  • The be (in before, below, beyond, behind) is the ancestor of "by" (in OE, it was often written bi- as well) just as in Present Day German "bei" and is originally a spatial reference to oneself (as in close by, nearby, stand by me etc). Aug 1, 2015 at 4:40
  • 1
    It is found in many Germanic languages. Logically speaking, it is justified as a reference point. hindan only provides the direction ("backwards") and be provides the additional point of reference precision ("behind what?" => behind myself). Aug 1, 2015 at 4:46
  • @AlainPannetier Thanks. I did your excellent answer at ELU: english.stackexchange.com/a/26019/50720
    – NNOX Apps
    Aug 1, 2015 at 15:02

1 Answer 1


This "be-" prefix (originally bi-) was originally used to create prepositions—compare fore against before, hind against behind, twain against between, low against below, and so on.

In essence, the prefix isn't adding any new semantic meaning: it's just changing the part of speech and attaching a reference point to the description. "Hind" is an adjective describing anything at the back (as in "hindmost"), but "behind" attaches that back-ness to a fixed reference point: you can be hindmost, but you can't be *hindmost the house; you can only be behind the house.

  • Does the prefix itself come from anything in particular? Like "by" (thinking of "because", which has "by cause" as its etymology, but these might be different)?
    – LjL
    Jul 19, 2019 at 21:34
  • @LjL I believe it's cognate with "by", and also with Greek epi and Latin ob (each from a different PIE grade).
    – Draconis
    Jul 19, 2019 at 21:52
  • Please qualify the period for which this is true; The question is interesting because prefixes have a tendency to converge. be- is a frequent suffix in German, but mostly verbal. There's a curious notion that bevor is partly similar in German (e.g. verbal in bevorstehen), but behind- implies retardation, or a hindernis, thus behindert, "handicapped", behindern, "to hinder, block"; ''Passive'' zurück geblieben is a common euphemism for arrested development, but zurück bleiben is also simply "to stay behind". hinter mir "beh. me", or Hintern "buttocks" do not need the suffix.
    – vectory
    Jul 20, 2019 at 7:19
  • Ger. Hinterbliebene exclusively means "living relatives of a deceased person", analoguous to Hinterlassenschaften "remains, inheritance", though the latter is not as exclusive. Thus I suspect a connection to the topic of orphanage (viz. behindert and a suppression of behind- as preposition in German due to taboo. I hope this can inform En. behind though I do not quite see how, as the development may be separate, not tangential nor original. For now I'd suspect that to hinder tabooized _-hinder by parallel development, but I do not see how.
    – vectory
    Jul 20, 2019 at 7:34
  • be- might trivially compare to to be, with equally loose semantics as by- (e.g. bygone, Ger. begangen; cp. begehen, "to cause"? "to commit, hold, go on"). Compare who is behind this to Ger. wer steckt da-hinter (cp. Ver-steck "hide-out", or maybe to stalk, who's stalking out there?). hint- straight from a PIE root *Henteros without any influence of under or anti is difficult, if there is so much potential for confusion across isoglosses (what with "up, ob, ab, auf, of, off, aft* etc. Comparing über and over, En. be- may be one of the senses of Ger. ver- ...
    – vectory
    Jul 20, 2019 at 7:55

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