What Does "Beck and Call" Mean?

Malcolm Tatum

Being at the beck and call of another person is a term used to describe a situation in which the wants and needs of that other person are of prime importance. As a result, the individual who assumes this subservient role in the relationship will immediately cease any activities that are not connected with that other person when summoned to respond to a want or need. This particular term is one that can carry positive or negative connotations, based on the setting and the circumstances surrounding the situation.

Woman standing behind a stack of books
Woman standing behind a stack of books

There is some difference of opinion regarding the origination of this particular idiom. Some sources place the first usage with literature dating back to the 17th century, while others hold that the idiomatic expression is of more recent vintage, possibly the late 19th or early 20th century. In either case, the saying has come to carry a dual meaning that requires closer scrutiny to determine just what is meant when someone is identified as being at the beck and call of another person.

When employed as a positive status, being a the beck and call of another person implies a high level of devotion that places the welfare of the adored one above all else. For example, a parent may choose to take time off from work or other responsibilities in order to see to the wants and needs of a child who is ill. In like manner, a friend may choose to be at the beck and call of a loved one who is going through a crisis, offering to provide emotional and other forms of support at least until the crisis is resolved. With instances of this type, the emphasis is on a temporary availability that is deemed necessary to bring about a desirable end.

The state of being at the beck and call of another person can also be perceived in highly negative terms. Situations in which an individual is treated as a slave by another person, with no regard for the feelings of the individual who is catering to the wants and needs of another often triggers a great deal of animosity. At the same time, the confidence of the one who is always the giver but never the recipient can often be undermined, with that individual manipulated into staying in an unhealthy relationship because he or she thinks there are no other options. From this perspective, being at the beck and call of another can be a seriously damaging experience that provides little if any rewards.

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