words; Behove

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Princess Diana's cleavage affects people in different ways. The modestly clad Jacqueline Samuel, giving her learned opinion in a recent court case, seemed at first to be taking a relaxed view of it. The question was whether it was proper to take a video of it in a public place, and Miss Samuel thought that it was. "It ill behoves anyone," she then went on, "to criticise the taking of a picture." That ill behoves rather suggests that she did care about the subject after all, since one hardly ever hears this quaint expression except when feelings run high, probably leading to arguments about pots and kettles. I think Miss Samuel must have meant that we'd all like to snap someone's cleavage if we got the chance.

It may, on the other hand, have been just a facon de parler, for lawyers are not like other people. They enjoy out-of-date phraseology, often the older the better; and behove has a long history. In Old English behofian meant to be useful or necessary. In Middle English it meant to be suitable, proper or incumbent, by which time it had begun to attract some moral overtones: good manners behoved a gentleman, and so on. It's odd that it survives only in negative contexts. We don't talk much about things behoving well any more, as we were still doing only 100 years ago. Behoves has become a one-trick word, like kith.

For me, there's something pedantic and clerkly about it. Part of its problem is that it sounds wrong, as though it were an ignorant misuse of the past tense of a non-existent beheave. Americans got over this by spelling and pronouncing it behoove, which I used to think truly ignorant, until I learnt from the OED that this was the original pronunciation. Its noun, making it analogous with prove, was behoof, or advantage.

Nicholas Bagnall