The Grammarphobia Blog

Beck and call

Q: I’m bugged by all the JetBlue posters in the NYC subways with the wacky slogan “Your Beck. Our Call.” I’d expect a copywriter who deals regularly with words to use “beck and call” properly. I nominate this as the worst slogan of 2012.

A: That JetBlue slogan (“Your beck. Our call”) may be wacky, but it’s effective. It got your attention, didn’t it?

The noun “beck,” which comes from the verb “beckon,” isn’t used much today except when we speak of being at someone’s “beck and call.”

As we all know, this means to be available at the slightest command, as in “I’m at the boss’s beck and call 24 hours a day.”

So the JetBlue ad is a play on words, a takeoff on “beck and call.”

The airline is saying in effect that its “call” (that is, its “calling”) is to respond to the customer’s “beck.” Or perhaps that it’s at the “call” (ready to respond) to the customer’s “beck.”

Either way, the original expression is “beck and call,” not “beckon call,” as a lot of people seem to think.

“Beck,” which originally meant a signal or gesture, is very old. The noun was first recorded in English in the late 1300s, according to the OED.

It was derived from an earlier verb, “beck,” which dates from the 1200s. And the verb, meaning to make a signal, was merely a short form of “beckon,” which is so old that it makes the other words look like youngsters.

“Beckon,” written as biecnan or becnian in Old English, dates from about 950 according to the OED and from before 830 according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

Over the centuries, “beckon” hasn’t changed much. It means today what it meant over a thousand years ago—to make a signal or gesture in order to get someone’s attention or to bid the person to approach.

And by the way, the verb “beckon” and the noun “beacon” have a common ancestor, a prehistoric Germanic word reconstructed as baukno or baukna (sign), according to the OED and John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

But getting back to the noun “beck,” it had two meanings when it was first used, in the 1370s and ’80s.

The OED says it could mean either “a gesture of salutation or respect,” like a nod or a bow or a curtsey, or it could mean a signal or gesture, “especially one indicating assent or notifying a command.”

In that latter sense, a “beck” might consist of “a nod, a motion of the hand or fore-finger, etc.,” Oxford adds.

Later, in the 16th century, the word became less literal, and no physical gesture was necessary. So “beck,” the OED explains, could mean “the slightest indication of will or command,” and by transference, “absolute order or control.”

These less literal senses of “beck” survive today chiefly in the phrase “to be at the beck and call of” someone, the OED says.

The dictionary’s earliest citation for the phrase is from an 1875 sermon by the Scottish preacher Alexander Maclaren: “Christ’s love is not at the beck and call of our fluctuating affections.”

However, we were able to find much earlier examples, from the 1600s and 1700s, in searches of Google and the Early English Books Online database.

The earliest we found was from a book entitled “Eighteen Sermons Preached in Oxford, 1640,” by James Usher, identified as “late Bishop of Armagh in Ireland.” The collection was published in London in 1660.

In “Sermon VII,” Usher writes: “Satan shall use them at his pleasure: both in soul and body they shall follow him at his beck and call.”

And Joseph Glanvill, a chaplain to King Charles II, used “beck and call” in 1668, though his words appeared in print 13 years later.

Glanvill died in 1680, and the following year his collection of writings on witchcraft, Saducismus Triumphatus, was published. One of the essays, “Some Considerations About Witchcraft,” is dated 1668, and in it Glanvill writes:

“It hath indeed been a great dispute among Interpreters, whether the real Samuel was raised, or the Devil in his Likeness? Most later Writers suppose it to have been an evil Spirit, upon the supposition that good and happy Souls can never return hither from their Coelestial abodes; and they are not certainly at the beck and call of an impious Hagg.”

As for the noun “call,” it meant a shout or cry when the word first showed up in English sometime before 1300, according to the OED. The verb “call” (to shout or cry) is even older, dating from before 1000.

A century after the noun “call” appeared, it took on the meaning of “summons” or “bidding,” the sense in which it was later used in the expression “back and call.”

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