Beck and call
To be at someone’s beck and call – harassed parents may relate to this – is to be in a state of responsiveness to someone’s every whim and wish. The point of interest in the phrase is the noun beck which, other than in this phrase, has pretty much disappeared from our everyday language.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, beck’s root is to be found in the Old English biecnan or becnian which modernised becomes beckon. Beck which appeared in Middle English around the start of the 14th century was an abbreviation of the verb beckon which by that time was spelt with and ending of –en, which was then the common form of an infinitive. It may be that the tenses were parsed in a way that assumed that the –en ending was the infinitive form. Who knows but the result is that beck was firmly established in our language from the 14th century.
A beck covered a range of gestures, from a nod of agreement or of greeting to a curtsey or a bow showing respect to one’s betters. The distinction is clear between a beck – a gesture – and a call which is a vocal summons. This usage of beck is well illustrated in Bartholomew Yong’s translation of Diana by Jorge de Montemayor, dating to 1598, “Giving a beck with his head to his Shepherdess in token of thanks.” By the early part of the 17th century beck had the connotation of an inferior being at the command of a superior and so phrases such as to have at one’s beck and to hang upon the beck of gained currency.
The natural progression from to have at one’s beck was to reinforce it with call in what is described by grammarians as a doublet form, where the second term emphasises and reinforces the first. In 1611 it duly appeared in a set of poems written by Aemilia Lanyer in 1611 called Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum, “The Muses do attend upon your Throne/ with all the artists at your becke and call.” In James Usher’s Eighteen Sermons Preached in Oxford, 1640 but actually published in 1660, we find in the seventh sermon, “Satan shall use them at his pleasure: both in soul and body they shall follow him at his beck and call.”
Joseph Glanvill used the phrase in an essay which he wrote, Some Considerations About Witchcraft, dated in 1668 but not published until 1681. There we find, “and they are not certainly at the beck and call of an impious Hagg.” Surprisingly, the Oxford English Dictionary, eschewing devilry and witchcraft, dates its first citation to 1875 and the Scottish preacher, Alexander Maclaren who wrote, “Christ’s love is not at the beck and call of our fluctuating affections.” This cannot be right – the first citation, I mean, not the Christian sentiment.
Language is constantly evolving and in part this series is a celebration of the fact. In more recent times a variant of our phrase has emerged, beckon call. For those of us of a charitable disposition, it is relatively easy to see how this might have come about. Beck is an archaic noun and beck and makes a pleasing elision into a word with which we are familiar, beckon. The more hard-hearted amongst us might regard it as an example of a mondegreen where the listener substitutes words that sound familiar. An example appeared in print in the West Fargo Pioneer of 6th September 2011, “With knowledge of a lifetime of growing produce at his beckon call…” Whether it will catch on, only time will tell.