Take the 2-minute tour ×
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.

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"?

share|improve this question
    
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

1 Answer 1

up vote 2 down vote accepted

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.

share|improve this answer

Your Answer

 
discard

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.