Friday, 17 December 2010

At Your Call and Beck

I'm sure you weren't wondering what a beck was, as in beck and call, but, as the Inky Fool's duty is to fix what ain't broke and to bind imaginary wounds, I can inform you that a beck is a gesture of command, usually a nod. It relates, as you would expect, to beckon.

So Wycliffe's Bible of 1382 gives Job 26v11 as:

The pileris of heuene togidere quaken and dreden at his bek.

Whereas the King James has:

The pillars of heaven tremble and are astonished at his reproof.

The OED and other authorities say that beck was married to call in 1875. However, I've found hundreds of earlier examples and can trace the affair all the way back to the man who traced things all the way back: Archbishop Ussher.

James Ussher was the fellow who worked out that the earth was created on October 23rd 4004 BC (a view that's now a trifle disputed); he also mentioned in a sermon of 1640* that:

...but 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.

And quite right too.

P.S. Poor old Ussher comes in for a lot of stick these days from people who don't realise that his chronology was a brilliant work of scholarship that simply happened to use a different methodology to our own. Stephen Jay Gould wrote an essay on how clever Ussher was, which is collected in Ever Since Darwin. It's sort of on the Internet but in an awkward form. If you go to this page and click on p0009.htm, then go back and click on p0010 and so forth and so on, you can read the whole thing. Otherwise go and buy the book.

*Published 1660 from the memory of the publishers. So the phrase may have been theirs not his. Either way, it sits in the sermon like a well-known phrase rather than an invention.

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