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Beck and call

Q From Jim Black: It is my pleasure to contact you in the hope that you can explain the derivation of the phrase beck and call, if indeed I spelled it correctly. Perhaps it ought to be beckoned call. I might deduce that beck is a derivative of beckon but in that case why should we need call as well? I await your thoughts.

A Many people think the phrase is indeed beckon call, as beck has vanished except in poetic or literary use and beckon seems to make more sense. It is becoming common online, though I’ve not yet seen it in print here in the UK. In the US it appears from time to time in the less literate, or less well sub-edited, newspapers:

With knowledge from a lifetime of growing produce at his beckon call, Wenzloff has turned his favorite hobby into a small business that helps keep the professed busybody from getting bored.

West Fargo Pioneer, 6 Sep. 2011.

However, beck and call is undoubtedly correct. Your belief that beck in the phrase is closely connected with beckon is quite right; it’s actually a shortened form of beckon that evolved from it in Middle English around 1300. The verb beckon was then spelled in a number of ways, all with an -en ending. People thought that was a mark of the infinitive and shortened it to make a new verb and later a noun.

In its early years, beck meant several kinds of gestures, not just the one of summoning that we mean by beckon today. It might be a nod of agreement or of salutation or a curtsey or bow as a mark of respect.

Giving a beck with his head to his Shepherdess in token of thanks.

Diana, by the Spanish playwright Jorge de Montemayor, translated by Bartholomew Yong, 1598.

By the time this appeared, beck had already taken on the idea of a summons or command to one’s social inferiors. By the early part of the next century various phrases had appeared to suggest a person had continually to be standing by, ready to obey the orders of a superior. These included to have at one’s beck and to hang upon the beck of. The version that we know today, which folds the archaic beck into the fixed phrase beck and call, came along a little later. The first example that I know of is in a work about the existence of witches that was written by Joseph Glanvill, a member of the Royal Society and chaplain to Charles II, which was published in 1681, the year after Glanvill’s death.

Putting beck and call together in this way, signifying ways to issue imperious commands to underlings by both gesture and voice, is an example of a doublet form in which the repetition adds emphasis. It may echo ancient conventional legal doublets, such as aid and abet, sale or transfer and terms and conditions, which evolved through adding French terms to English after the Norman Conquest to ensure everybody understood what was meant.

Page created 8 Oct. 2011

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Last modified: 8 October 2011.