Printable Version
Pronunciation: bek Hear it!

Part of Speech: Noun

Meaning: 1. A stream, brook, creek (the ordinary term in that area between Lincolnshire and Cumbria, occupied by the Danes and Norwegians in days gone by; see History for why). 2. The slightest gesture reflecting someone's will or desire, especially a slight beckoning gesture.

Notes: Most of us know this word from the phrase, "to be at someone's beck and call". However, as we will see below, it is available for far wider service. Although it has not been much used in this function, it remains a verb, too: "The stars becked her spirit with their infinite infinitesimal dances."

In Play: Perhaps the most famous use of today's Good Word was the comment made by US novelist, William Faulkner, when he was forced to resign as a postman, "I reckon I'll be at the beck and call of folks with money all my life, but thank God I won't ever again have to be at the beck and call of every [person] who's got two cents to buy a stamp." ("Person" is a euphemistic substitution.) A beck today is taken to be a slight gesture, "Phyllis Glass was the perfect secretary, who could detect the slightest beck of her boss and know exactly what he wanted."

Word History: Beck is actually two different words that accidentally merged. The first word was borrowed from Old Norse bekkr "stream" (Dutch bk, German Bach, Swedish bck). It goes back to PIE *bhegw- "to run", seen today in Russian begat' "to run". Greek phobos "panic, flight, fear" came from the same PIE root which, in classical Greek emerged in phebesthai "to run away in terror". The second meaning of this word came from Middle English bek "a beckoning gesture", obviously related to beckon and beacon. The original PIE root was *bhag- "to shine" but in Germanic languages the meaning migrated to "indicate, signify". (We are certainly happy to be at the beck and call George W. Walker, III, when he comes up with intriguing words like today's.)

Dr. Goodword,

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