Origin of beck and call

Today, there are many ways to call or summon a person. Whether through verbal expression (calling out aloud) or gesture (hand signal), we can be sure that the person called will identify with the calling. To respond or otherwise is entirely up to the person. In the early years, the hierarchical difference within a household is mapped out distinctly. Servants especially, are expected to be at their master’s service almost always readily and immediately. Regardless of master’s requirements, the servant or lowly peasant ought to respond quickly and efficiently. This gives rise to the term “beck and call”

To “beck” signifies making a silent hand or finger gesture in order to summon a person to approach. It is also a shortened form of the word “beckon” “Call” on the other hand, is a spoken command asking the person to approach. The earliest record of this phrase is in 1875 where it was noted in a sentence.

This phrase was widely used back then and is still commonly used today. A further study on the origin of beck and call reflects that it is associated with phrases with negative connotation such as oppressed, exploited, mistreated, and tyrannized. This is because the phrase was first used to describe a master-servant relationship. As mentioned above, the servant is expected to be at the master’s disposal at any time. Thus, the person summoned may come from a lower class rank or is responsible of running menial tasks and the one who does the calling is naturally one with authority.

Today however, the phrase has taken on a broader definition as it is used to describe almost anyone who subjects another person at his/her disposal. This authoritative figure may be a boss, mother, an elderly figure, or even friends and loved ones. Thus, the person subjected to this phrase may be described as loyal, faithful, compliant, and willing. It also signifies readiness and often used in situation that requires preparedness. A lot of companies are also willing to be at their client or customer’s beck and call, reflecting a strong sense of customer-first priority.

The origin of beck and call is not entirely clear, though it should not be confused with another commonly misspelled phrase, “beckon call”. The later phrase is merely a mishearing of the first phrase because “beckon” is a more common word compared to “beck”.

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