The Curious History of “Bead”
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
Browse all articles on the Vocabulary category or check the recommended content for you below:
Improve your English in 5 minutes a day! Subscribe to our Writing Tips and Exercises via Email
- You will improve your English in only 5 minutes per day, guaranteed!
- Subscribers get access to our archives with 800+ interactive exercises!
- You'll also get three bonus ebooks completely free!