August 31, 2000
Matt Bull wrote:
Do you know the origin of the term deadbeat? I had always assumed that it was derivative of the beatnik movement of the 1950's. But my grandfather, who grew up near Frank Lloyd Wright (and dated his daughter), tells me that all of the locals used to call Wright a deadbeat. And that was at least as early as the 1920's.
Your grandfather is correct. Deadbeat is older than Frank Lloyd Wright. In fact, it dates from the Civil War period.
In the middle of the 19th century, one of the meanings of the verb beat was 'to swindle or cheat': "Our noble commander [is] contriving some plan…for to beat/From us everything…fit for to eat" (Huntington, Songs Whalemen Sang, 1849).
During the American Civil War, beat was used in military slang as a noun to designate a soldier who shirked duty: "A 'beat' is one who plays sick, shirks guard duty, drills, roll call, etc., and is always missing in a fight" (Wightman, To Fort Fisher, 1863).
Deadbeats were those soldiers who shirked duty by faking an injury or illness: "The really sick and the habitual deadbeats, anxious to escape duty, are marched from each company by a sergeant to the Surgeon" (Galwey, Valiant Hours, 1862).
Of course, human nature continues to produce shirkers, with or without a war. So we still have deadbeats of all varieties today: deadbeat parents, tax deadbeats, deadbeat dates, deadbeat musicians, and so on.
Since you brought up the beatniks, I will add one quick word about that etymology. Beatnik was coined by Herb Caen, a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, in 1958. He combined the words beat, as in "the Beat Generation", and -nik probably by analogy with Sputnik. Some sources claim that the beat in the "Beat Generation" reflects 'jazz rhythm'; others say that it is shortened from "beatitude." The original citation from Herb Caen proves both folk etymologies false: "Look magazine...hosted a party...for 50 Beatniks, and by the time word got around...over 250 bearded cats and kits were on hand, slopping up Mike Cowles' free booze. They're only Beat, you know, when it comes to work" (Caen, San Francisco Chronicle, April 2, 1958). So, your guess was actually backward. Deadbeats weren't named after beatniks, rather beatniks were named after the slacking, shirking deadbeats of the last hundred years.
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