“Women just seemed to cook, clean, and be at their husbands’ beckoning call.”

Again a freshman reviews history.  Verbum sap.

If he runs true to pattern, he could be referring to any time in the past (or perhaps all times in the past) except his own. I believe this particular statement came from an essay about the nineteenth century—possibly in relation to “Desirée’s Baby,” “The Yellow Wall-paper,” or something by Margaret Fuller—or maybe the early twentieth century and the play “Trifles”—but truly, the context doesn’t matter. It’s hard for anyone fully to imagine the past, with all its exceptions and nuances; but generally freshmen superimpose a conceptual template (“the oppression of women,” for instance) over a cartoon of The Olden Days, and Voilà!

I particularly like this statement, because overgeneralization aside, my student is almost right in terms of word choice. Of course I knew what he meant: the expression is “beck and call,” and that’s almost certainly all he had in mind. Here’s Webster’s: “beck” is a shortening of “beckon,” meaning “a beckoning gesture.” The expression “at one’s beck and call,” Webster’s continues, means “in obedient readiness to obey any command.” Yes, that’s the picture my student seems to want to conjure up, all right.

But he hasn’t seen this expression written down, I’d be willing to bet. He’s heard it: “beckncall.” He doesn’t know “beck” as a word, but he does know “beckon” and, probably, “beckoning,” so he assumes that “n” in the middle is an elision of “on” or “oning,” not “and.” Well, it can’t be “beckon call,” can it? “Beckon” isn’t a kind of call. So “beckoning” it must be.

Alas for me, poor reader who actually knows the expression “beck and call.” What my student has written makes me pause, because it isn’t the standard phrase. And I, when I pause, tend to make little mental pictures.

Here’s the picture I get of a husband’s beckoning call: he’s in the bedroom, or possibly at the head of the stairs. If in the bedroom, he cracks the door open a bit, just enough to reach his (bare!) arm out; if at the head of the stairs, he leans his (bare? whipped-cream-covered?) torso over the banister and extends his arm. In either case, he then crooks his index finger invitingly and calls out “Oh, Honey?” or “Sweeeeeeetheart?” or “Hey Babe, let’s get it on!” or “Get in here, woman!” or whatever passes for “the” invitation in his household and relationship.

A woman who is at her husband’s beck and call is pretty much oppressed, or obsessed with God’s punishment of Eve and eager to fulfill it. But a woman who is at her husband’s beckoning call has some romance in her life, you betcha. He may call the shots, but at least there are some shots, of a tempting nature. After all the cooking and cleaning, there’s hubby, beckoning as he calls, a roll in the hay at the end of the day.


About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

2 responses to ““Women just seemed to cook, clean, and be at their husbands’ beckoning call.”

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