The Curious History of “Bead”

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You may have heard the expression “to draw a bead,” meaning “to take aim.” A hunter, for example, “draws a bead” on the quarry. The expression, used both literally and figuratively, is popular with headline writers

Connecticut gunman drew bead on bosses

Kiefer Sutherland and ’24’ draw a bead on a feature film

HP and Microsoft Draw a Bead on Cisco

The “bead” in this expression comes from “the small metal knob that forms the front sight of a gun.”

The word bead attached to this knob because of its resemblance to the kind of bead most of us probably think of when we hear the word:

A small perforated body, spherical or otherwise, of glass, amber, metal, wood, etc., used as an ornament, either strung in a series to form a necklace, bracelet, etc., or sewn upon various fabrics.

This general sense of bead derived in turn from rosary beads, the little markers strung together for the purpose of helping a worshipper count prayers.

Originally, “beads” were not the little objects on the string, but the prayers being said. Bead in this sense is a cognate of German bitte, a word that is used to make a request. Someone praying with a rosary was said to be “telling his beads,” that is, counting his prayers. Another meaning of the verb to tell is “to count.” (The bank teller counts out your money.) Historically, wealthy patrons would pay people to pray for them on a regular basis. These professionals were called beadsmen or beadswomen. Keats begins his poem St. Agnes’ Eve with this evocation of a harsh winter’s evening:

St. Agnes’ Eve–Ah, bitter chill it was! 

The owl, for all his feathers, was a-cold; 

The hare limp’d trembling through the frozen grass,

And silent was the flock in woolly fold:

Numb were the Beadsman’s fingers, while he told

His rosary, and while his frosted breath,

Like pious incense from a censer old,

Seem’d taking flight for heaven…

An earlier spelling of bead was bede, from Old English gebed, “prayer.” The OE verb biddan meant “to pray” as well as “to ask.” By the late 14th century, the word bede/bead had attached to the objects on which the prayers were told or counted.

The expression “to draw a bead on” is an obvious headline choice when the topic is something like gun control,

Critics Draw A Bead On State House Gun Ban

but I wonder if the writer who came up with this one about the popularity of rosaries with non-Catholic soldiers in Iraq realized just how clever it is:

Worshippers draw bead on rosaries

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6 thoughts on “The Curious History of “Bead””

  1. You’ve got a typo here:

    Originally, “beads” were not the little objects on the string, but the the prayers being said.

    I really hate it when people point out typos, but I thought you’d want to know. 🙂

    Nice article. Thanks!

  2. Do we know what the English called small round things with holes in them before they started confusing them with prayers? I can’t help but wonder if there was some English wight in the 1390’s grumbling “Can’t stand all this sloppy new-fangled usage–‘bede,’ forsooth. It’s a prayer, not a small round object with a hole through it. There’s a perfectly good Old English word for those things already. People should use it.”

  3. @Kathryn
    Now you’ve got me wondering! I’ll probably waste hours scouring my OE dictionaries in search of a previous word for those little round things with holes in them.

  4. ‘You may have heard the expression “to draw a bead,” meaning “to take aim.”’ Actually, here in Britain I never have! I wonder whether anyone else has? Mercifully our press hasn’t discovered it as far as I know.

    There are semantic overlaps that this posting brings to mind to do with asking and praying.

    1. To pray (note it’s a strong verb: bid/bade [pronounced ‘bad’, usually]/ bidden)
    as in ‘to bid farewell’

    2. Hence to ask, order:
    To do someone’s bidding (i.e.asking)
    And the delightful adjective ‘biddable’ (= compliant to people’s wishes)

    So the opposite is to ‘forbid’, that is to bid someone not to do something.

    But ‘pray’ too has extensions into mere asking: E.g.:
    ‘And where, pray, do you think you are going?’
    In East Anglia in England, and no doubt elsewhere, the older people will say ‘Pray mind what you’re doing’ for ‘Please be careful…’

  5. “Millgrain” (or milgrain) is a word used in making jewelry. It refers to tiny drops—beads— of metal, (gold or silver) used to hold a gemstone in place. The drops of molten metal were delicately dropped into place to “ring” the stone. Now millgrain is decorative, and done by engraving the metal (or “milling”) rather than the more tedious method originally used.

    So millgrain, or a derivative, may be the word the English used before bead, but that is pure speculation on my part.

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