Nowadays, having someone at your "beck and call" means that they answer your text messages right away, or they're ready to pick up your favorite iced coffee whenever you ask. In the Middle Ages, the phrase "beck and call" referred to a servant doing a master’s bidding — though the request was usually more significant than making a Starbucks run.
The History of 'Beck and Call' at Your Beck and Call
The Royal Origins of 'Beck and Call'
Have you ever curled a finger at someone to “come here” or tilted your head just so to call them closer? You’re closer to a Medieval king or queen than you thought! Monarchs and masters in the Middle Ages would "beckon" (or the shortened “beck”) their servants. If the servants failed to respond with this gesture, the master would then "call" — hence, the servant being at one's "beck and call."
Think of it as a modern “text and call.” When someone fails to respond to your text, you may consider giving them a call (unless the thought of a phone call makes you shudder).
Times When You’re at Someone’s Beck and Call
If you’ve ever worked in customer service, you know what it’s like to be at someone’s beck and call. For example:
You’re at the front desk of a hotel and guests call for new towels every hour on the hour.
You’re a server at a restaurant and you have to return to one particular table because they need more water, or want to hear the specials again, or they changed their mind about their order, or …
You work at a clothing boutique and a customer mistakes you for a personal shopper, so you have to keep bringing them size small shorts in different colors because maybe they’ll fit in a different color ...
But at least in customer service you get paid to be at someone’s beck and call! Unpaid (also known as personal) examples of being at someone’s beck and call include:
Your pregnant best friend has to have salt and vinegar chips, and by “has to have” she means “I need them now or I’m going to freak out and text you 100 times,” so you’re off to the grocery store.
You politely offered to help a buddy move, and now he’s blowing up your phone with requests for boxes, packing tape, and your entire Saturday afternoon.
Your beautiful new baby needs a diaper change at 2 a.m. Then he needs to be fed at 3. Then it’s the diaper again at 4 a.m. Then his sock fell off at 5 a.m. …
'Beck and Call' Has Been Around for a Minute (or Two)
The phrase "beck and call" is a popular way for authors to describe a character who is completely devoted to another. One of the earliest written uses of the phrase "beck and call" comes from 14th-century poet Aemilia Lanyer in her collection, Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum.
"The Muses doe attend upon your Throne,
With all the Artists at your becke and call
The Sylvane Gods, and Satyres every one,
Before your faire triumphant Chariot fall:
And shining Cynthia with her nymphs attend
To honour you, whose Honour hath no end."
James Usher, a 17th-century Irish bishop, used the phrase in a sermon from his collection titled Eighteen Sermons Preached in Oxford, 1640 to describe a sinner's devotion to the devil.
"... for the wicked God will use no such restraint: Satan shall use them at his pleasure: both in soul and body they shall follow him at his beck and call."
"Beck and call" has plenty of modern applications as well. In 2014, satirist and author Margaret Atwood used the phrase in a New York Times opinion piece titled "Are Humans Necessary?"
"To understand Homo sapiens' primary wish list, go back to mythology. We endowed the gods with the abilities we wished we had ourselves: immortality and eternal youth, flight, resplendent beauty, total power, climate control, ultimate weapons, delicious banquets minus the cooking and washing up - and artificial creatures at our beck and call."
What About 'Beckon Call'?
Have you been scratching your head and thinking "I'm pretty sure it's supposed to be 'beckon call'"? You wouldn't be the only one. Not only does "beckon call" make plenty of sense (you're beckoning and calling), it's not an unpopular way to write this phrase.
However, the actual phrase is "beck and call." Writing it as "beckon call" is an example of an eggcorn — a phrase that sounds identical to another when spoken out loud, and only appears incorrect when written out. Say it however you want in conversation, but make sure you write it as "beck and call!"
Avoid Feeling Like an Idiom
The next time you have someone at your beck and call, enjoy the royal feeling that comes with the phrase's history. But don't go too far with it — the 21st century is quite a ways off from the Middle Ages! How many more colloquialisms and idioms do you use every day, and do you know where they come from?