← Philament 3: Offbeat

An On & Off Beat

Kerouac’s Beat Etymologies

Bent Sørensen

If one does a search in the MLA database for “off-beat” as a title word, the number of hits is limited to four different entries. This can mean one of two things: either the notion of off-beat is seriously under-theorised and something needs urgently to be done about it; or else, off-beat is completely marginal to literary criticism and should best remain so. For now we shall proceed in the belief that the former is closer to the truth.

What exactly does off-beat signify? Our examination of the word would not be complete if it did not contain a remark on the compound’s own self-reflexive “off-beatness.” We may perhaps best proceed by looking etymologically at each of the compound’s elements separately. The verb “beat” means to strike repeatedly (a highly resonant meaning when we turn to the musical usage of the word) and its root “beatan” occurs in texts as early as Beowulf (about the year 725). [1] As a verb, the part-tense “beat” has developed from Middle English where it was originally spelled “beted.” What is noteworthy here is that “beted” and “beatan” contain an extra syllable, which to all intents and purposes make the forms distinctly off-beat compared to the ones currently in use. The short form of the participle “beat” (rather than the off-beat form “beaten”) is still found in certain words such as “dead-beat.” Curiously these words have echoes in the cultural connotations of the word “beat” when defined and used as a generational epithet by writers such as Jack Kerouac.

The prefix “off” has its own interesting etymology. Before the 1100s “off” was the same word as “of,” sharing its etymological development. Gradually, however, the double-f spelling came to be reserved for the emphatic form, or in other words developed as the adverb “off,” whereas the weaker form “of” became the preposition we use today. “Off” was then often spelled “offe,” thus containing the off-beat extra phoneme/syllable which is no longer represented. [2]

Chambers dates the origin of the compound “off-beat” (which is more often spelled without the beat-accentuating hyphen) itself to 1927, to indicate “an unaccented beat in music,” whereas the figurative meaning of “unusual” or “unconventional” comes into American English in 1938. [3] “Off-beat” travelled quickly into colloquial usage in the cultural realm. The rapidity of the journey from a technical term in music writing to a general metaphor for “off”-ness in relation to a norm indicates the power of the construction. The speed of that process was helped by the fact that the music form most utilising the off-beat was jazz, which was already a street or popular art form, always prone to generating a richly metaphorical phraseology, or “jive.”

“Jive” in the sense of deliberately misleading, untrue or empty boasting talk is first recorded in 1928. It is also used as a verb that same year in Louis Armstrong’s phrase, “Don’t jive me.” [4] Prior to that (1918), “jazz” had had the same meaning in American college slang. [5] The word “jazz” itself entered English in 1909 as the name of a ragtime dance and in 1913 was first used as a term for a syncopated style of music. [6] Of course both “ragtime” (first used 1897) and “syncopation” (first used in 1597, for a shifting of accent in music) refer exactly to the utilisation of “off-beat” techniques (“apparent rhythmic imbalance or irregularity” [7] ), shifting the tempo of dance music away from Euro-centric meters toward freer, more improvisation-friendly rhythmic structures.

We note that most of these terms (“off-beat,” “jive,” “jazz”) have negative connotations in their original usages. Common to them is also the fact that subversive and subcultural meanings quickly developed, reversing the valorisation of the words compared to their original meaning. By the 1920s jazz was purely a term for a specific type of music and by the late 1930s “jive” had also subtly shifted significance. It now referred more commonly to the dance called “jive,” but also, and positively, to the act of “jiving” to the beat. By the 1950s the notion of “jive talking” had developed to signify a racially determined argot which excluded “squares” who would be unable to decipher the code of this black (“hipster”) vernacular. The 1950s also witnessed a crucial reversal of the valorisation of the core word in the “off-beat” compound, namely “beat” itself.

Instrumental in putting the word “beat” on the cultural map of the 1950s was writer and originator of the term “Beat Generation,” Jack Kerouac. The origin of the generational construct which became labelled as “beat” is actually to be found in the 1940s writings of Kerouac, which explicitly stated generational belonging and zeitgeist formulation as part of their poetics. Kerouac, however, in the process of receiving rejection after rejection (after the modest success of his debut novel The Town and the City (1950)), in line with his own spiritual and technical development, grew ever more experimental and radical in his search for spontaneous expression of his consciousness—with the result that his subsequent writings were unpublishable at the time of writing. It was only after the furore and scandal that followed the publication of his friend Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems in 1956 that the potential market for his writing arose and his seminal novel On the Road appeared in 1957.

But paradoxically, the world first heard about Kerouac and his labelling of a whole generational ethos in 1952 through an article by Kerouac’s friend John Clellon Holmes. In this piece Holmes defines being “beat” as “More than the feeling of weariness, it implies the feeling of having been used, of being raw. It involves a sort of nakedness of mind.” [8] Holmes’ gloss of Kerouac’s original phrase “You know, this is really a beat generation,” interprets and reduces the open signification of Kerouac’s label. For Holmes the state of being beat is more closely related to the feeling of vulnerability after having received a good beating. He denies the connotation to tiredness (“Man, I’m beat” as Herbert Huncke reportedly said to Kerouac on Times Square in 1944 [9] ) and puts forward a definition that resonates more with the feeling of being “beat up” than “beat down.”

The initial labelling attempt was, however, largely unsuccessful, and the label “beat” as designating an ethos of a whole generation only gained recognition and wider usage after Kerouac’s On the Road was finally published in 1957. After that, the “Beat Generation” quickly became an accepted entity in intellectual debate and popular media culture in America. Kerouac became an instant celebrity after the publication of On the Road and its modest success on the best-seller lists as a hard-cover book. [10] A good example of the familiarisation process Kerouac’s name underwent is found in Richard Eberhart’s To Eberhart from Ginsberg. A Letter about HOWL 1956:

I recall in that early time hearing the word Kerouac. I thought this a foreign and most odd-sounding word, one which I had never heard before. As years passed it became a household term not odd sounding at all. [11]

Soon after the publication of On the Road began the tendency in the critical reception of “Beat Generation” writing for rampant ‘biographism,’ which has largely continued till today and which can only partially be countered by approaches such as the cultural etymology of the present article. In the 1970s and 1980s virtually all Kerouac scholarship was to be found in actual biographies, such as those by Ann Charters, [12] Tom Clark, [13] Dennis McNally [14] and Gerald Nicosia. [15] Among the few examples of criticism one might single out the collection Lee Bartlett edited in 1981. [16] Even in such recent scholarship on Kerouac as the books by Ted Hunt, [17] Robert A. Lee, [18] James T. Jones, [19] Regina Weinreich, [20] Ben Giamo, [21] and Kostas Myrsiades,the biographical perspective tends to predominate [22] .

One of the earliest examples of canonical criticism of “beat” writing will suffice to show the imbrication of confessionality and social criticism which has long been thought to epitomise a “beat” poetics. Eric Mottram writes on this issue in The Penguin Companion to Literature:

…the Beats were a criticism of American complacency under the Ike-Nixon regime, an expression of new forms of prose, and poetry and an exploration of consciousness, which joined the dissent of existing Bohemias … to produce a distinct style of literature and living, based on disaffiliation, poverty, anarchic individualism and communal living. A relaxation of ‘square’ (puritan, middle-class, respectable) attitudes towards sex, drugs, religion and art became the opposing uniformity of beat.’ [23]

This early formulation gives us some of the building blocks of the beat identity. Firstly, we note the conflation of “style of literature and living,” a highly characteristic observation when it comes to the “Beat” writers, who have long been considered less as artists and fictionalisers than as recorders of a frantic lifestyle, with little attention on their part to artifice in their practice. Clearly there is some truth to the observation that Beat writings can be and have been used as blueprints for Bohemian living by many of its creators and readers. Probably no other generational construct has had as direct a relationship between its textual expressions and its members’ socio-cultural behaviour.

Next, we note the emphasis on criticism and dissent, both seen in relation to the dominant culture of 1950s America, a period of domestic political tranquility and relative prosperity compared to the previous two decades, with the attendant gelling of consumption and nuclear family patterns. That the period was also characterized by a near-paranoid obsession with the oppression of deviant political, religious and existential beliefs should also be noted as a necessary presupposition for understanding the reception of Beat writings.

Thirdly, we note the catalogue of determinant features of the Beat ethos: “disaffiliation, poverty, anarchic individualism and communal living.” Here the conflation between life style description and literary features or themes is complete. It is hard to see what the ideal of poverty, often with little choice involved, has to do with literary expression, other than the fact that literature can of course be about poor people in some sense. At the end of the quote we find the only criticism of the Beat construct in the piece, namely that its opposition to dominant culture values became in itself a rigid doctrine, “the opposing uniformity of ‘beat.'” This refers to the in-group marking that went into re-enforcing the Beat identity, for example the subcultural argot used by ‘beats’ (and not understood by ‘squares’).

Now to return to Kerouac’s evolving etymologies of “beat.” In “The Origins of the Beat Generation,” originally published in Playboy in 1959, Kerouac writes: “The word “beat” originally meant poor, down and out, deadbeat, on the bum, sad, sleeping in subways,” [24] but further notes that the word had gained an extended meaning connoting people who “have a certain new gesture, or attitude, which I can only describe as a new more.” [25] Kerouac is here suffusing the label with positive connotations, a move he later extends into giving “beat” religious significance.

For Kerouac himself the importance of the “beat” label lay as much in its openness of signification. He returned to it several times to pour new meanings into it. In several letters he claims to have shown that “beat” is the Second Religiousness of Western Civilization as prophesied by Spengler, [26] and that it

always takes place in late civilisation stage […] The 2nd Relig. is sublime, it takes place during the coldhearted days of big city skepsis but it is indifferent to that because it is a reappearance of early springtime forms of the culture and as such well-rooted. [27]

The main religious connotation Kerouac constructed for the word “beat” was its orthographic, but not etymological or phonetic correlation to the term “beatific.”

He writes in “The Origins of the Beat Generation”:

I went one afternoon to the church of my childhood and had a vision of what I must have really meant with “Beat” […] the vision of the word Beat as being to mean beatific… […] I knew it then. [28]

Kerouac now overlays the term which he thought to have Spenglerian connotations with a reference to Catholic sainthood. The Beats are saints in the making, walking the Earth doing good deeds in the name of sanctitude and holiness.

The Kerouacian etymology of “beat” is thus in a deep sense an off-beat etymology. First, because the actual etymology of “beatific” is nowhere cognate with or closely related to that of “beat.” “Beatific” derives, via French (Kerouac’s childhood tongue) “beatifique” from Latin “beatus” (blessed, from “beare,” make happy). [29] Second, because the visual etymology employed by Kerouac (who after all saw it in his vision) has no corresponding phonetic basis. The root (“beat(us)”) in all its forms keeps the double syllable structure, and is also pronounced bé-át with equivalent stress on both halves, and is nowhere elided into the diphthong sound found in modern English “beat.” One might therefore argue that “beat” only when pronounced with an off-beat accentuation can become “be-at(ific).”

Interestingly, this is not the only example of an add-on accentuation of the term “beat.” In 1958 San Francisco columnist Herb Caen coined the phrase “beatnik” to denote members of the growing Californian Bohemian youth culture, which he associated with New Barbarian tendencies in America. The coinage spuriously connotes a connection between the long-haired Bohemians and Communism, as it borrows its suffix from the Russian word “sputnik,” [30] the satellite that Communist Russia had launched in 1957, flaunting Soviet superiority over the USA in the Space Race and in technological development in general. An added layer of insult is embedded in the suffix “-nik,” when we remember that derogatory words in Yiddish (such as “nudnik,” [31] meaning “someone who is a boring pest”) often end in this manner. What is of significance here is that “beatnik” is another off-beat destabilisation of the word “beat” with its addition of the syncopated suffix “-nik.”

The “beatnik” appellation already enraged Kerouac in 1959: “People began to call themselves beatniks, beats, jazzniks, bopniks, bugniks and finally I was called the “avatar’ of all this.” [32] Kerouac here incidentally points to the subcultural practice of youth cultures of embracing derogatory labels (an act of bricolage) and redefining them as positive markers of in-group identity. Youths proudly wore the label of beatnik and saw it as a significant way of expressing dissent, thereby going one better than Caen had imagined when he coined his derisive label, and also assuring the extended lifespan of the label that we have seen. For Kerouac, however, as the progenitor of the original “beat” definitions, “beatnik” is a meagre substitute and cannot replace his label and the meanings he ascribes to it. In 1958 he wrote, reiterating the “beatific” connotation:

The Beat Generation, that was a vision that we had, John Clellon Holmes and I, and Allen Ginsberg in an even wilder way, in the late Forties, of a generation of crazy illuminated hipsters suddenly rising and roaming America, serious, curious, bumming and hitchhiking everywhere, ragged, beatific, beautiful in an ugly graceful new way. [33]

Kerouac had distinctly ambivalent feelings about being the “avatar,” “father” or “king” of the beats. Towards the end of his life he denounced the youth culture which following his example had gone on and off the road, and under other labels such as “hippies” and “yippies” advocated opting out of the American dream and started regarding the United States of America as an imperialist force of evil. Kerouac remained a patriot and a political conservative to the end (his off-beat response to the counterculture illustrates this: “I’m a bippie in the middle” was the subtitle of his last article). He revised many of his youthful religious beliefs, denouncing Buddhism and Spenglerianism, and particularly distanced himself from drug-induced Oriental spiritualism à la Timothy Leary.

In a letter dated September 18, 1965, he writes:

This is not a second-religiousness generation but the very opposite, granted, maybe, yes, our vision of the hitch-hiking Negro saint WAS but that only lasted till 1949 or so… the 1950s began a new sinisterness in America, and now the “Soaring Sixties” is just really a soaring hysteria. [34]

Thus his notion of Beat as a Spenglerian second coming has ended in the bitter disappointment of a millennial believer whose apocalypse never arrived.

Kerouac went completely off-beat in the “Soaring Sixties,” denying all political and collectivist implications of the term “beat.” In a TV interview with William Buckley Kerouac denounced what he saw as Leftist co-optations of the label “beat,” again reverting to individualism and Catholicism as his ethos: “Being a Catholic, I believe in order, tenderness and piety.” [35]

In similar words he expressed his disenchantment with the role of spokesman in a Paris Review interview:

Oh the beat generation was just a phrase I used in the 1951 written manuscript of On the Road to describe guys like Moriarty who run around the country in cars looking for odd jobs, girlfriends, kicks. It was thereafter picked up by West Coast leftist groups and turned into meaning like “beat mutiny” and “beat insurrection” and all that nonsense; they just wanted some youth movement to grab onto for their own political and social purposes. I had nothing to do with any of that. [36]

Kerouac turned a whole generation onto the beat and put millions of young soul-searching Americans on the road, but he himself remained an on-again off-again beat throughout his life, flirting with numerous religious systems but always infusing them with a dose of the Catholicism to which he ultimately reverted. Paradoxically, for a writer who made the open American road his “beat,” he preferred to stay at home with his beloved Memere, and in the 1960s he rarely went on the road even to lecture or give readings. By the time of his death his “beat” had extended to cover all of America and most of the world, as youngsters used On the Road literally as a roadmap for their search. But Kerouac himself had long since abdicated his status as King of the Road as well as King of the Beats.


[1] Robert K. Barnhart, ed., The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology (Edinburgh & New York: Chambers, 1999), 84.

[2] Ibid., 723.

[3] Ibid.

[4] John Ayto, Twentieth-Century Words (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 149.

[5] Barnhart, The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, 551.

[6] Ayto, Twentieth-Century Words, 28 and 89 respectively.

[7] Barnhart, 882, on “rag” as a style of “jazz.”

[8] John Clellon Holmes, “This Is the Beat Generation,” The New York Times Magazine, 16 November 1952, reprinted in Holmes Nothing More to Declare (New York, Dutton, 1967), 110.

[9] Jack Kerouac, “The Origins of the Beat Generation,” in Don Allen, ed., Good Blonde and Others (San Francisco: Grey Fox Press, 1994), 59.

[10] The New York Times Book Review list for the fall of 1957, for instance, shows it entering at number 14 on October 6, a position which was held and slightly bettered throughout October and the first half of November, only for it to disappear for good from the list on November 17. Its high point was number 11 on both October 27 and November 10.

[11] Richard Eberhardt, To Eberhardt from Ginsberg, A Letter about HOWL 1956 (Lincoln, Mass.: Pennean Press, 1976), 8.

[12] Ann Charters, Kerouac: A Biography (London: Picador, 1973).

[13] Tom Clark, Jack Kerouac: A Biography (New York: Paragon House, 1984).

[14] Dennis McNally, Desolate Angel; Jack Kerouac, The Beat Generation, and America (New York: Delta Books, 1979).

[15] Gerald Nicosia, Memory Babe: A Critical Biography of Jack Kerouac (New York: Grove Books, 1983).

[16] Lee Bartlett, ed., The Beats: Essays in Criticism (North Carolina: McFarland-Jefferson, 1981).

[17] Tim Hunt, Kerouac’s Crooked Road: Development of a Fiction (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1996).

[18] Robert A. Lee, The Beat Generation Writers (East Haven: Pluto Press, 1996).

[19] James T. Jones, Jack Kerouac’s Duluoz Legend: The Mythic Form of an Autobiographical Fiction (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1999).

[20] Regina Weinreich, Kerouac’s Spontaneous Poetics: A Study of the Fiction (New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2002).

[21] Ben Giamo, Kerouac, the Word and the Way: Prose Artist As Spritual Quester (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2002).

[22] Kostas Myrsiades,ed., The Beat Generation: Critical Essays (Geneva: Peter Lang, 2002).

[23] Eric Mottram & Malcolm Bradbury, The Penguin Companion to Literature (London: Penguin, 1971), 28.

[24] Kerouac, “Origins,” 61.

[25] Ibid., 62.

[26]  Ibid., “Origins,” 66.

[27]  Ibid., “Origins,” 68.

[28]  Ibid., “Origins,” 63.

[29]  Barnhart, The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, 84.

[30] Ayto, Twentieth-Century Words, 326.

[31]  Barnhart, The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, 84.

[32] Kerouac, “Origins,” 63.

[33] Jack Kerouac, “Aftermath: The Philosophy of the Beat Generation,” in Allen, 47.

[34] Ann Charters, ed., Jack Kerouac: Selected Letters 1957-1969 (N. Y.: Penguin Books, 1999), 464.

[35] Charters, Kerouac: A Biography , 516.

[36] Jack Kerouac in Ted Berrigan, et al., “Kerouac Interview,” Paris Review 43 (Summer 1968): 101-102.

Bent Sørensen holds a PhD in English from the Department of Languages and Intercultural Studies, Aalborg University, Denmark. His publications have included “Labelling a Generation – Generationing the Text”, a book on the short fiction of Edgar Allan Poe, and articles on T.S. Eliot, Raymond Federman, J.D. Salinger & Douglas Coupland, Nella Larsen, Elvis Presley & Jane Fonda. His current research is in the field of transatlantic themes in American 20th and 21st C. literature and culture. The inspiration for his piece for the “Off-Beat Issue” of Philament comes from years of work with the production and reception of Beat Generation writings, and offered him a welcome opportunity to follow his secret inclinations to be a philologist and etymologist (alongside his everyday persona as a poststructuralist and a constructivist).