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'Beckon Call' or 'Beck and Call'?

Which phrase is correct: "Beckon Call" or "Beck and Call"?

By
Mignon Fogarty,
A man who appears to be at everyone's beck and call.

Dave J. asked, “What's the appropriate phrase—'beckon call' or 'beck and call'?”

The correct phrase is “beck and call.” If you are at someone's beck and call, you respond immediately whether he or she beckons or calls; it implies complete subservience.

It's an old phrase, originating in the late 1800s, during a time when “beck” was used to mean “beckon.”

The problem is that the “on” in “beckon” sounds a lot like how we sometimes slur the word “and” in “beck and call.” Kind of like “rock ’n’ roll,”—we often say “beck ’n’ call.”

The word “beck” goes all the way back to Old English, but the Oxford English Dictionary seems to say that “beckon” is even older because they list “beck” as a shortened form of “beckon.” Old Saxon, Old High German, and Old Norse all had similar words. 

The correct phrase is 'beck and call.'

At first, “beck” didn’t mean to signal someone to come to you, it simply meant to make a gesture, but by the 1400s, “beck” meant to signal someone to approach. 

The words “beckon” and “beacon,” as in the light, actually come from the same Proto-Indo-European word that meant “to shine,” and if you think about it, a beacon can call someone to it just like a beckon. 

Examples of ‘Beck and Call’

“Oh please," Scout said."Don't take that tone with me. You know you'd love to have a minion. Someone at your beck and call. Someone to do your bidding. How many times have you said to yourself," Self, I need a unicorn to run errands and such?” — Chloe Neill, “Firespell”

“I cannot be willing to believe that spirits who have left this world have nothing better to do than be at the beck and call of any and all who choose to call them from the ‘vasty deep’ of the hereafter,” said the Philosopher. — “The Seven Travelers” ("Emerson’s Magazine and Putnam’s Monthly,” 1858)

Examples of ‘Beckon Call’

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Although the two-word “beckon call” is most definitely an error, two related restaurants in Denver are called Beckon and Call, which is sometimes written in their marketing as just “Beckon|Call,” like the mistaken spelling, and seems like that will probably add to the confusion in that city. 

Also novelist Timothy Zahn introduced a device called a “beckon call” in his Star Wars Expanded Universe trilogy published in the early ‘90s. Apparently, the “beckon call” is a kind of remote control or tracker that gives a distant person different kinds of control over a ship, including bringing (or beckoning) the ship back to the controller. Here’s a relevant passage from “Star Wars: Vision of the Future”:

“Stray thoughts,” Luke said, pulling out the beckon call and handing it to her. “You’re not going to be able to call the Fire from here, though. We’re way out of range, and I seem to remember the beckon call being strictly line-of-sight."

“No, there’s also a broadcast setting,” Mara said. “But the range is pretty limited. Still, there may be transmitters in the High Tower I can run the call signal through."

I like the word play!

The two-word version does also turn up occasionally in web articles. Who knows. If enough editors get laid off, maybe the “beckon call” error will become an accepted spelling. I’ll still fight against it though. I don’t think this one is a lost cause yet.

Here are a couple of recent examples:

These beauty whizz kids are at our beckon call. — Marie Claire UK website. 

Thor only 7 years old came to his owner’s beckon call Thursday afternoon while his home was smoldering away. — WKTV website (This page has so many errors it makes me suspect it might have been auto-translated from the video. Computers sometimes make the same “mishearing” mistakes that people make.)

Overload image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Mignon Fogarty is Grammar Girl and the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips. Check out her New York Times best-seller, “Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.

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