The discovery of the word 'beat' was essential to the
formation of a sense of self definition among the earliest
writers making up the cluster that would later call itself
members of a 'Beat Generation'.
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. Jazz musician Mezz Mezzrow combined it with other words like 'dead beat'or
'beat-up' in his book Really The Blues.
In 1944, the word 'beat' as used by a Times Square hustler
named Herbert Huncke came to the attention of
writer William Burroughs. Through Burrows, it was
passed on to Allen Ginsburg and Jack Kerouac.
As Allen Ginsburg remembered first hearing the
word 'beat', the original street usage meant "exhausted, at the
bottom of the world, looking up or out, sleepless, wide-eyed,
perceptive, rejected by society, on you own, streetwise".
Jack Kerouac was fascinated by the tone of
the word 'beat' as said by Huncke hunched over a cup of coffee in
a Times Square cafeteria. Kerouac heard a "melancholy sneer" in
Huncke's voice that never meant "juvenile delinquents" despite
its use by drug addicts, but rather meant "characters of a
special spirituality ..."
In a June, 1959 Playboy article titled "The Origins of the
Beat Generation", Kerouac explained that the linguistic root of
the word 'beat' also carried connotations of beatitude or
beatific. The term 'Beat Generation' was coined by Kerouac in a
conversation with John Clellon Holmes who felt Kerouac's
stories "seemed to be describing a new sort of stance toward
reality, behind which a new sort of consciousness lay." He urged
Kerouac to try to define it in a phrase or two.
As Holmes recalled, Kerouac replied, "It's a kind of
furtiveness... Like we were a generation of furtives. You know,
with an inner knowledge...a kind of beatness... and a weariness
with all the forms, all the conventions of the world... So I
guess you might say we're a 'Beat Generation'.
Holmes felt the label was appropriate and had "the subversive
attraction of an image that just might contain a concept, with
the added mystery of being hard to define ... a vision, not an
When the term 'Beat Generation' began to be used as a label
for the young people Kerouac called 'hipsters' or 'beatsters' in
the late 1950s, the word 'beat' lost its specific references to a
particular subculture and became a synonym for anyone living as a
bohemian or acting rebelliously or appearing to advocate a
revolution in manners.
In 1958, a few months after Russia launched their 'sputnik'
satellite, San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen coined the
word 'beatnik'. He wrote condescendingly that "Look
Magazine hosted a party for 50 Beatniks... and over 250
bearded cats and kits were on hand... They're only Beat, y'know,
when it comes to work ..."
Holmes wrote that "... the Beatniks and the Mass Media
succeeded in beclouding most of what was unsettling, and thereby
valuable, in the idea of Beatness..."
By Johnny Mayer.
Photo of Jack Kerouac by Allen Ginsberg.
The article is based on an excellent anthology - The Portable Beat Reader by Anne Charters. Links to Beat Writer Books