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Does anyone know why a judge or magistrate is referred to in less reverent circles as "the beak", especially in the phrase "up in front of the beak"?

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I don't know the answer to this but I have heard it used of a school Headmaster or even a teacher of high authority, such as a Head of Department. – JamesHH Jul 15 '12 at 15:26

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I don't know but the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica says

The slang use of "beak" for a magistrate or justice of the peace has not been satisfactorily explained. The earlier meaning, which lasted down to the beginning of the 19th century, was "watchman" or "constable." According to Slang and its Analogues (J. S. Farmer and W. E. Henley, 1890), the first example of its later use is in the name of "the Blind Beak," which was given to Henry Fielding's half-brother, Sir John Fielding (about 1750). Thomas Harman, in his book on vagrants, Caveat or Warening for commen cursitors, Vulgarely called Vagabones, 1573, explains harmans beck as "counstable," harman being the word for the stocks. Attempts have been made to connect "beak" in this connexion with the Old English beag, a gold torque or collar, worn as a symbol of authority, but this could only be plausible on the assumption that "magistrate" was the earlier significance of the word.

Businessballs has a longer entry on the subject.

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It could be possible that the judge or magistrate would be a man of high standing and authority and also a man of intelligence and learning in the community. A doctor, surgeon or chemist (and perhaps a clergyman?) would be known as a 'Beak' (dating from the plague years) and in slang, the name stuck as a generic term.

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can you reference any sources to support your answer? – erich Apr 28 at 22:31

The Beak A nickname given to Judges in the distant past.

"During the bubonic plague, judges visiting prisons used to wear primitive gasmasks, stuffed with herbs or spices thought to ward off the plague - since it looked like a beak... they were referred to as "going before the beak" as they were never seen without it." "A beak's a magistrate, where have you been all your life?" - The Artful Dodger on The Beak Oliver! movie 1968 by LongJohnSlither May 27, 2009 8 0 SHOP

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Hello, Simon, and welcome to English Language & Usage. Your answer looks interesting, but I'm having trouble working out which quotation goes with which attribution (as well as the meaning of the last part of the citation you provide). If possible, please provide a link (or links) to the quoted language in your answer. Thanks! – Sven Yargs May 12 at 21:27

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