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  • Paul Anthony Jones


(n.) the act of removing someone’s head

In English, the suffix –al is used to form so-called nouns of action (that is, words essentially bearing the meaning ‘the act of x–ing’) from verbs. So the act of arriving somewhere is an arrival. The acts of refusing or removing something are refusals and removals, and so on.

In technical terms, that makes the –al suffix a nominalizer—that is, a noun-creating unit of meaning. In etymological terms, –al was adopted into English from French and Latin, and although its roots are knotty, in simple terms it derives ultimately from the Latin suffix –alia. That’s the neuter plural form of the adjectival suffix –alis (see, we told you this was knotty), which essentially had two purposes in Latin: to make adjectives from nouns, or to make adjectives from adjectives, and in doing so somehow intensifying or nuancing their meaning. This –al, for instance, is the same as that found in the adjective dual (from duo, the Latin for two), and at the end of equal (from aequus, which likewise meant equal in Latin). The application of –alis or –alia in later Latin and then in French altered slightly over time, so that we ended up with a unit, –al, from which to make nouns, not adjectives. That suffix has since become naturalized in English, so that we can now use it not just with words of Latin or French origin, but those with Germanic and other non-Romance roots too. In the word betrothal, for instance, –al is attached to verb betroth, the roots of which lie in treowðe, the Old English word for truth.

As we highlighted over on Twitter, though, there are more than a few lesser known examples of these –al words, including surprisal (the act or outcome of surprising someone), confrontal (the act of confronting someone), and one word that caused something of a stir: beheadal.

Yes, a beheadal is the act of removing someone’s head. And yes, it’s a real word. The hallowed Oxford English Dictionary dates it to 1859 (though here it is a decade earlier than that, in an 1848 edition of Chamber’s Journal) and cites no less than three different attestations of it. It might be rare, sound a little clunky or unusual, and perhaps not be the most everyday of words, but it is nevertheless real.

And nor for that matter is beheadal the strangest, clunkiest, nor most unlikely of –al words we could have highlighted here either. Elsewhere in the OED, you’ll find entries for the likes of escapal (the act of escaping), compromisal (to act or result of compromising), and even buyal—a seventeenth century word for the act of purchasing something.

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