On this blog, we’ve previously discussed the surprisingly difficult question of what the Beat Generation was, and later, what the difference is between Beats and Beatniks. Yet actually pinning down the meaning of the word “Beat,” an adjective used by the likes Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and William S. Burroughs in the forties and fifties, is not so difficult. Its etymology is well-documented – although, as with so much Beat lore, there are numerous errors in popular sources. It originated in “hepcat” speak, most likely passed from the underground world to the Columbia world through Herbert Huncke.
What Does ‘Beat’ Mean?
Ann Charters tells us where the word originated:
The word ‘beat’ was primarily in use after World War II by jazz musicians and hustlers as a slang term meaning down and out, or poor and exhausted.
Then, in The Birth of the Beat Generation, Steve Watson explains how it came to the young circle of friends in and around Columbia:
Hebert Huncke picked up the word [beat] from his show business friends on of Near North Side of Chicago, and in the fall of 1945 he introduced the word to William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, and Jack Kerouac.
John Clellon Holmes noted in his journal that Kerouac applied the term “Beat” to an entire generation on December 10th, 1948, and in in 1952 Holmes wrote “This is the Beat Generation” for The New York Times Magazine. In attempting to describe the meaning of the word, he explained:
More than mere weariness, it implies the feeling of having been used, of being raw. It invokes a sort of nakedness of mind, and ultimately of soul; a feeling of being reduced to the bedrock of consciousness. In short, it means being undramatically pushed up against the wall of oneself.
The phrase “Beat Generation” soon entered the consciousness of middle America, and with books like On the Road, Howl and Other Poems, and Naked Lunch, by the end of the fifties, it was in widespread use. Herb Caen famously subverted it after the Sputnik launch to become “Beatnik,” a pejorative term far removed from the origins of Beat.
Although it was too late, and the terminology had gotten far beyond his control, Kerouac attempted to reclaim the meaning of Beat and Beat Generation in the late fifties, claiming that Beat meant “beatific” or “beatitude.” He was keen to emphasize the spiritual connotations, and remove it from ideas of juvenile delinquency.
First Written References
Above, I have established the origins of the word “Beat,” and traced its development and use from pre-1945 hepcat talk to late-fifties morphing into a pejorative term. But a written record only begins with Holmes’ 1952 article. Prior to that, it appears the history is an oral one.
In fact, there are examples of the word being used in texts by the Beats – letters, journals, poems – in the forties. Below, I shall give what I’ve found to be the first written examples. These seem to confirm the claim by Steve Watson that Huncke taught the word to the three core Beat writers in mid-1945.
Right around the corner is Huncke’s pad.
He can slip you dreamier stuff than movies:
From blasting the roach of false communion, you
Are left hung up and beat, a broken square,
Nauseous with hallucination, dumb
To see a drag come crawling up the street.
This poem was written and revised during the last three months of 1945. It is the first example of Ginsberg using “jive talk” in his poetry, which previously had been dominated by classical language. In this poem he began to move towards his own poetic voice.
William S. Burroughs
These jerks feel that anyone who is with it at all belongs in a nut house. What they want is some beat clerk who feels with some reason that other people don’t like him.
This is from a letter, written on 19th February, 1947, to Allen Ginsberg. “Those jerks” are psychoanalysts, whom at this point Burroughs despised. Note the two examples of street talk: “with it” and “beat.”
Incidentally, Huncke is brooding again, and it seems like Huncke is never so great as when he’s beat down and brooding and bitter.
On 2nd January, 1948, Kerouac wrote Allen Ginsberg to make the above observation about the man who coined the term Beat. It doesn’t appear as though the word really entered Kerouac’s written vocabulary until mid-1948, much later than Ginsberg and Burroughs.
If you can find any earlier references to Kerouac’s use of “Beat”, please let us know in the comments below.