English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

I recently entered into an argument with my Mom regarding it's apt use. Though traditionally, it implied servitude, but hasn't it's meaning changed over the years? Basically, is using it to a Professor/Higher Authority convey servitude or politeness?

share|improve this question
The phrase is "at your beck and call". And yes it's servile/unctuous, especially to a higher authority (that makes it worse; saying it to a buddy who's sick in bed, or a cute girl after a first date, is using it ironically, preciously; saying it to a professor is another thing altogether). – Dan Bron Aug 27 '14 at 12:00
Neither servitude not mere politeness. It lies somewhere in between. See a dictionary/ search online for the idiom "beck and call." – Kris Aug 27 '14 at 12:30
That's what Tim and Josh have done, and their references describe "beck and call" as "entirely subservient" and "pretentious" respectively. But if you want to find more/better/different references, go ahead and add an answer of your own (that's why OP is asking here, and the question is on topic). – Dan Bron Aug 27 '14 at 12:34
I believe I once read a science fiction novel (possibly one of Zahn's Star Wars novels) involving a device that would summon a starship to automatically fly to its owner. The device was called a beckon call, presumably a nod to this eggcorn. – Nate Eldredge Aug 27 '14 at 17:47
Should we be paging Mrs. Malaprop, or Lady Mondegreen? – keshlam Aug 28 '14 at 3:24
up vote 14 down vote accepted

I belive it is "beck and call*":

Beck and call

To be at someone's beck and call is to be entirely subservient to them; to be responsive to their slightest request.

Call has it's normal meaning, however:

'Beck' is more interesting. The word, despite having been in use in English since the 1300s century, isn't one that is found outside of this phrase. It is merely a shortened form of 'beckon'

(NB "isn't one that is found outside of this phrase" isn't strictly true - it also means a small stream. I assume that that quote means it is only used meaning "beckon" when in this phrase).

"entirely subservient" - so the answer is servitude.

Quotes are from phrases.org

share|improve this answer
How do you make sense of the ngrams that indicate beck much more widely used than beck and call, or for that matter, even the word beckon? (beck is defined as a mountain stream, or bow or curtsy). – SrJoven Aug 27 '14 at 12:49
Yeah a brook, or a shortening of beckon, but only in this phrase. It is used more than "beck and call" because it has more than 1 meaning - more opportunities for it to be used. – Tim Aug 27 '14 at 13:20
@SrJoven, edited, that should clarify. – Tim Aug 27 '14 at 13:23
beck is also used without the and call as far back as beck and call is used, in the simpler phrase at his beck. – Frank Aug 27 '14 at 13:38
@Frank, but that has fallen out of usage now? – Tim Aug 27 '14 at 13:40

Beckon call, from Urban Dictionary:

  • A misinterpretation of the phrase "beck and call" such as "at ones beck and call" meaning to be at willful readiness to fulfill another's orders or commands. It is usually used by people who are attempting to sound more well read than are are in actuality.

    • "Professor Stackhouse has us at his beckon call."

According to the Phrase Finder:

  • The misspelling began in the USA in the early 20th century.

    • Just because 'beckon call' is based on a mishearing doesn't mean that it won't one day become accepted as proper English. Other phrases, like 'beg the question' for instance, are routinely used incorrectly by so many people that the incorrect usage has now become the standard. Let's hope 'beckon call' dies a natural death, not only because it is essentially just a spelling mistake but because its adoption would signal the last gasp of the enjoyable little word 'beck'.

As Dan Bron has nicely pointed out in his comment the expression is servile and used especially with higher authorities.

share|improve this answer

Richard Gere uses the "beck and call" phrase as a demand to Julia Roberts when his character hires hers as a call girl in the movie Pretty Woman. So yes, it implies subservience.

share|improve this answer

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.