Beck and call or beckon call?

When it comes to figuring out the difference between ‘beck and call’ or ‘beckon call,’ the correct idiom to use is ‘at someone’s beck and call.’ The phrase ‘at someone’s beck and call’ is employed to convey a relationship where one person is used at another’s disposal.

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What is the difference between beck and call and beckon call?

If you’re well-versed in classic literature or surrounded by people who use idioms, there’s no doubt that you’ve heard the phrase ‘at someone’s beck and call.’ This particular phrase is easy for English speakers to misuse because it’s relatively long, and the term beck is an old-fashioned, shortened form of the word beckon. So why wouldn’t you say the phrase ‘beckon call’ instead? 

In the case of beck and call vs. beckon call, the correct version of the idiom is ‘at someone’s beck and call.’ Historically, people reserved this phrase to describe their servile relationships to masters, lords, kings, or queens. But nowadays, it’s common to hear people use beck and call to describe their relationship to authority figures such as their parents, bosses, teachers, or even their significant other. 

The literary phraseat someone’s beck and call’ is used to describe a relationship where one person is entirely under the will of another. In other words, if you’re ‘at someone’s beck and call,’ you’re essentially another person’s servant. You’re happy and eager to fulfill anything asked of you as they “beck” (beckon) and “call” (for you)–– or at least, that’s what is expected of you. 

Beck and call is part of an idiom, beckon call is not

Idioms are expressions that have no meaning to people who don’t understand them. Sometimes idioms are literal, but most of the time, they are peculiar, personal, and require people to think creatively in how they describe common social experiences. For example, an English speaker might say, ‘it’s raining cats and dogs!’ but the speaker doesn’t literally mean that animals are falling from the sky. Whoever is using the idiom is metaphorically describing how heavy and loud the rainfall is outside. 

Proverbs such as ‘ignorance is bliss‘ are similar to idioms because they are also expressions with specific, abstract meanings. The main difference between proverbs and idioms is that proverbs can stand alone as sentences, while idioms are phrases that require a sentence to introduce them. 

Additional idioms or proverbs heard in the English language include, ‘letting someone off the hook,’ or ‘straight from the horse’s mouth.’ The first phrase is used to describe somebody who has been relieved of responsibilities, while the other describes the act of receiving information straight from a source. Obviously, nobody is hanging others from hooks, and horses don’t talk (except for Mr. Ed, of course). Idioms are merely short, metaphorical phrases to quickly convey a scenario, and the audience already understands their meanings.

If somebody were to say, ‘it’s shining snakes and rabbits!’ or ‘right from the horse’s nose,’ nobody would understand what they’re trying to say because the idiom is obscure to them. So, when we writeat someone’s beck and call,’ we’re using a specific phrase to describe a particular dynamic, and others understand the meaning of the phrase. Misphrasing or misspelling the idiom changes the way English readers understand what you’re trying to say. 

Idiom or not, beckon call does not make sense

It’s true how the phrase ‘beck and call’ is commonly confused with “beckon call,” but this is unfortunate because ‘beckon call’ doesn’t make sense. What if the Beatles had named their song “Twist Shout” instead of “Twist and Shout”? The words beckon and call are two commanding actions, and so placing them next to one another in a phrase is disorienting. 

According to The Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories, the word beck of ‘beck and call’ stems from Middle English and is still used as a shortened version of Old English “beckon” or béacen (“Beck” 49). The term béacen carries West Germanic origins and is connected to beacon because they are both ‘mute signals.’ To beckon someone is to make a physical gesture, normally with a motion of the hand, that signals another person to come near, stand attention, or make them aware of the desired interaction.

To call someone, in this sense, is to make a command or request, or to speak loudly enough so that one could be heard from a long distance. So, let’s think about what it would mean to ‘beckon call.’ Would it mean that someone could stand in place while beckoning and yelling? Possibly. But do the synonyms “motion” and “bellow” make sense if you put them together as “motion bellow”? Absolutely not. 

The confusion between beckon call vs. beck and call is what linguists call an “eggcorn.” An eggcorn is any phrase or word that occurs from mishearing or misunderstanding what somebody says aloud. Like the game of telephone, when we’re unsure of what somebody says, we replace their words with the next logical phrase that comes into mind. But as we know, this type of communication leads us to a misinterpretation of messages, and this is the case with beckon call

What does ‘at someone’s beck and call’ mean?

To be at someone’s ‘beck and call’ is to be in a state of total subservience; you’re entirely willing to do anything they ask of you at a moment’s notice. From what we can tell from classical literature, it appears as though the phrase ‘at somebody’s beck and call’ is intended to be a sarcastic, backhanded remark. 

The phrase ‘at someone’s beck and call‘ is a state of being, and so it’s technically like a noun. But, depending on the context it’s used, many adjectives and verbs suffice in conveying the same information. 

Synonyms of beck and call:

Agreeable, amenable, compliant, conformable, docile, dutiful, eagerly, fawning, happily, keen, obedient, obeisant, obsequious, servile, submissive, subordinate, subservient, raring, ready, worship, yielding.

Antonyms of beck and call:

Apathetic, argumentative, contumacious, defiant, disobedient, froward, incompliant, indifferent, independent, insubordinate, rebellious, restive, pervicacious, pertinacious, pococurante, unamenable, ungovernable, unruly, willful. 

Beck and call in literature

According to Literarydevices.net, English writer Aemilia Lanyer is responsible for coining the phrase ‘beck and call’ in the 1611 book Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum. Lanyer’s poetic phrase states, 

“The Muses doe attend upon your Throne, 
With all the Artists at your becke and call.”

The 17th-century poet may very well have used this term first, although transcriptions of Homer’s The Odyssey have used the English phrase ‘beck and call,’ as well. 

For example,

“‘ I am too old to care about remaining here at the beck and call of a master.’” 

Since texts such as The Odyssey and The Iliad were originally written in Greek, Latin, French, and English translators may have taken creative liberties over time. 

Further examples of beck and call in literature

There’s no foolproof way to learn the difference between idioms and “eggcorns.” The best way to learn how to use idioms is to read example sentences from your fellow writers. In the case of older phrases, classic literature is a great place to start. Here are a few additional samples of “beck and call” within classical literature: 

“If I’m to be at the beck and call of that old woman, and serve the new king at the same time, I shall have my hands full.” 
––  L. Frank Baum, Queen Zixi of Ix

“Naturally you will want to go for walks, and drives, and shopping. You don’t imagine that I shall expect you to be a prisoner, just waiting on my beck and call!” 
–– Elinor Glyn, Man and Maid

“And added to the incurable dullness of the mess was the irksome feeling of being merely an overgrown schoolboy at the beck and call of every incompetent and foolish senior.”
–– William Somerset Maugham, The Hero.

Test Yourself!

  1. The word “call” of beck and call means ______________? 
    a. To communicate over the telephone
    b. To briefly visit
    c. To summon for a command 
    d. To roll call
  2. The word ‘beck’ is an abbreviation of what Old English term? 
    a. Béacen
    b. Beckon 
    c. Bieldan
    d. Bæc
  3. The phrase ‘all that glitters is not gold’ is an example of which type of formulaic language? 
    a. Idiom
    b. Expletive 
    c. Proverb
    d. Pause filler
  4. The literal interpretation of ‘at someone’s beck and call’ is what? 
    a. You’re unhappy to oblige someone at their command
    b. You’re not expected to serve but you must
    c. You are a servant for another person 
    d. None of the above
  5. The general connotation of “at somebody’s beck and call” is that it is used _____________? 
    a. As an oxymoron
    b. As sarcasm
    c. As a paradox
    d. B and C

Answers

  1. C
  2. A
  3. C
  4. C
  5. D

Sources

  1. At someone’s beck and call.Lexico, Oxford University Press, 2020.
  2. At sb’s beck and call.” Cambridge Dictionary, Cambridge University Press, 2020.
  3. Baum, Frank L. (1905). “Jikki has a wish granted.” Queen Zixi of Ix, The Literature Network, 2020. 
  4. Beck and Call.” Definition and Examples of Literary Terms, Literary Devices, 2020.
  5. Beck and call.” The Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Inc., 2020.
  6. “Beck.” The Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories, Ed. Glynnis Chantrell. Oxford University Press, 2002, pp. 49. 
  7. Beckon.” The Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Inc., 2020.
  8. Call.” The Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Inc., 2020.
  9. The Englished Homer.” Online Exhibits, Regents of the University of Michigan, 2020. 
  10. Glyn, Elinor (1922). “Chapter 23.” Man and Maid, The Literature Network, 2020. 
  11. Homer. “Book XVII.” The Odyssey, The Literature Network, 2020. 
  12. Idiom.” Lexico, Oxford University Press, 2020.Maugham, William S. (1901). “Chapter 21.” The Hero, The Literature Network, 2020.