Where does the word “Beat” Come from?

Where does the word “Beat” Come from?

The word “Beat” originally derived from circus and carnival argot, reflecting the straitened circumstances of nomadic carnies. In the drug world, “beat” meant “robbed” or “cheated” (as in a “beat” deal). Herbert Huncke picked up the word from his show business friends on the Near North Side of Chicago, and in the fall of 1945 he introduced the word to William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. He never intended it to be elevating, but the opposite: “I meant beaten. The world against me.”

The word acquired historical resonance when Jack Kerouac, in a November 1948 conversation with fellow writer John Clellon Holmes, remarked, “So I guess you might say we’re a beat generation.” Appropriating this conversation, Holmes introduced the word to the mainstream public four years later, in a November 1952 article for the New York Times Magazine, entitled “This is the Beat Generation”. It involves a sort of nakedness of mind, and, ultimately, of soul,” Holmes wrote, “a feeling of being reduced to the bedrock of consciousness.”

By the early 1950’s, Kerouac and Ginsberg had begun to emphasize the “beatific” quality of “Beat”, investing the viewpoint of the defeated with mystical perspective. “The point of Beat is that you get beat down to a certain nakedness where you actually are able to see the world in a visionary way,” wrote Ginsberg, ” which is the old classical understanding of what happens in the dark night of the soul.”2

For an entry in the Random House Dictionary, Jack Kerouac provided an apt historical definition: “Members of the generation that came of age after World war II, who, supposedly as a result of disillusionment stemming from the Cold War, espouse mystical detachment and relaxation of social and sexual tensions.”3 As the twentieth century draws to a close, the Beat Generation has outlived that historical moment, surviving notoriety and media blitz to become classic literature for succeeding generations.

Excerpted from The Birth of the Beat Generation Copyright © 1995 Steven Watson

  • 1 William Carlos Williams, “Introduction”, in Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems, 1956
  • 2 Scumacher, Dharma Lion, p. 261
  • 3 Gilbert Millstein, New York Times, September 5, 1957
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