Don’t be at his beck and call all the time

April 03, 2023 08:30 am | Updated 08:30 am IST

Know your English

Know your English | Photo Credit: iStockphoto

What is the meaning and origin of the expression, ‘be at someone’s beck and call’? (J. Saraswathi, Kumbakonam)

In this rather old expression, ‘beck’ is the shortened form of the verb ‘beckon’. When you ‘beckon’ someone, you usually signal or motion to an individual that you would like them to come closer. This could be achieved through several means — a motion of the hand, a tilt of the head, etc. The important thing is that no words are exchanged between individuals — it is a mere gesture. The ‘call’ in the expression refers to the actual exchange of words. When you are at someone’s beck and call, you give your undivided attention to the individual; you observe every gesture he makes and listen attentively to what he says. In the old days, it was a servant’s duty to be at his master’s beck and call. A master could get his servant to do his bidding in two different ways; he could either ‘beck’ him or tell him what to do. The idiom ‘be at someone’s beck and call’ has a very negative meaning. It is normally used nowadays to suggest that one of the participants is being slavishly attentive; he is going out of his way to keep the other individual happy by doing his every bidding.

If you think we’re all going to be at your beck and call, you’re sadly mistaken.

During the first few months of marriage, Vijay was at his wife’s beck and call.

What is the difference between ‘maimed’ and ‘wounded’? (P. Akhil, Secunderabad)

A wound, whether it be minor or serious, is usually visible to the naked eye. It normally results in a break in the surface of the skin, and as a result, blood oozes out — the amount of blood lost will depend on the severity of the wound. One can talk about a knife wound, a gun-shot wound, etc. Usually, in the case of a wound, there is always a chance of recovery; in most cases, a wound usually heals. One does not always die because of a wound, nor does one lose the use of a limb because of it.

It took the police officer several months to recover from the multiple stab wounds.

During the fight, Srinivas and several of his friends were seriously wounded.

A wound need not always be physical, it can be emotional as well. For example, you may intentionally or unintentionally hurt the feelings of your friend by ignoring her at a party. This act of upsetting someone can also be called a ‘wound’.

Veena was deeply wounded by her friend’s snide remarks.

‘Maim’, which rhymes with ‘aim’, ‘shame’ and ‘tame’, is a lot more serious than a wound. The word is related to ‘mayhem’, and when it is used in any context, it suggests extreme violence. When you are maimed, you are crippled. You may lose an arm, a leg, an eye — some part of your body is left permanently damaged; you are usually left disfigured for life. There is no question of healing in this case.

Although there were no fatalities, several people were maimed in the bombing.

Ambulances were seen taking the maimed to different hospitals.

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