From 'Beat' To Beatnik

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From 'Beat' To Beatnik
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 idea."
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. beatnik - usually faintly pejorative, coined 1958 by San Francisco newspaper columnist Herb Caen during the heyday of -nik suffixes in the wake of Sputnik. From Beat generation (1952), associated with beat in its meanings "rhythm (especially in jazz)" as well as "worn out, exhausted," but originator Jack Kerouac (1922-69) in 1958 connected it with beatitude (q.v.).
The origins of the word beat are obscure, but the meaning is only too clear to most Americans. More than the feeling of weariness, it implies the feeling of having been used, of being raw. It involves a sort of nakedness of the mind." ["New York Times Magazine," Oct. 2, 1952]
Etymology on Line

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