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Dead beat

Posted by Smokey Stover on April 02, 2008 at 15:05:

In Reply to: Dead beat posted by James Briggs on April 02, 2008 at 10:26:

: : What is the origin and meaning of the term or phrase 'dead beat'?

: 'Beat' is 'exhausted' in this context. 'Dead' is another example of the word used as an intensifier 'dead centre', 'dead certainty' 'dead on', 'dead ringer' etc, etc. It doesn't have an origin, but 'dead' in this sense is 100s of years old.

Besides the meaning correctly adduced by Dr. Briggs, there are two others. One is a dead stroke in a clock, in clockmakers' lingo. The other, especially well-known on this side of the ocean (the New World), is, in the words of the Oxford English Dictionary, "B. n. slang (orig. U.S.). A worthless idler who sponges on his friends; a sponger, loafer; also (orig. Austral.), a man down on his luck. Also attrib." The OED gives citations from 1863 on.

What is the correct spelling? The O.E.D. spells the expression "dead beat" and "dead-beat." In my experience (U.S.), the usual spelling for the sponger is deadbeat, in one word, and my understanding is that a deadbeat in particular will not pay back a loan and is not good for his debts generally. "Deadbeat dad" is nowadays used to characterize an absentee father who refuses to pay child support.

The O.E.D. further points out that "beat," in 19th century America, could be used to mean "An idle, worthless, or shiftless fellow." I don't know if this is the ultimate origin of the "beat generation" of the 1950s.