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Dead beat

Posted by Smokey Stover on April 02, 2008 at 17:40:

In Reply to: Dead beat posted by ESC on April 02, 2008 at 16:34:

: : : : 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.
: : SS

: Merriam-Webster has deadbeat one word and says it dates back to 1863. That led me to the "Civil War Wordbook including Sayings, Phrases & Expletives" by Darryl Lyman (Combined Books, Conshohocken, Pa., 1994. Page 19.

: Mr. Lyman says "deadbeat" takes its meaning from "beat." Beat -- loafer or sponger. "The word was widely used among soldiers to designate a man who did not carry his weight. Probably from the slang verb 'to beat' (to cheat)..."Deadbeat, another word for loafer or sponger, also came into vogue during the Civil War. The first syllable probably comes from the adjective 'dead' ('complete'), as in 'dead broke.'"

: Another reference has "deadbeat" as a verb in the 1880s.

: Regards "beat generation" (coined by Jack Kerouac in a conversation with John Clellon Holmes in 1948), there is a lengthy article in "Flappers 2 Rappers: American Youth Slang" by Tom Dalzell (Merriam-Webster Inc., Springfield, Md., 1996). Summing up, it says "beat generation" and "beatnik" comes from "beat" -- meaning "tired, exhausted, and impoverished since the early 1830s." Holmes writes about "beat" in an Esquire magazine article in 1948: "Everyone who has lived in a war...knows that beat means...being emptied out...a state of mind, from which all unessentials have been stripped, leaving it receptive to everything around it, but impatient with trivial obstructions..."

Actually, the meaning of beat as indicated by Messrs. Holmes and Dalzell corresponds to what I had supposed before reading about "beat" meaning "shiftless," and I am completely comfortable with Dalzell's explanation of the beat generation, even if it sounds like a crock on the part of Kerouac, et al.