Most commonly, to beat means ‘to strike something or someone repeatedly,’ ‘to smash against,’ and ‘to shape by hitting.’ However, beat also means ‘to stir ingredients vigorously,’ ‘to keep time by strokes,’ ‘to defeat something or someone,’ and, informally, ‘to be better than something or someone.’ Informally, it means ‘to confuse’ and ‘to avoid blame.’ As a noun, a beat is a stroke or blow and the sound it makes, the major rhythm in a music piece, and a throbbing or pulsing. As an adjective, beat is used informally to mean ‘exhausted.’
Beat dates back to before the year 900. The Old English verb bēatan (later the Middle English beten) meant ‘to inflict blows on or thrash someone.’ It comes from the Proto-Germanic verb bautan, and before then, from the Proto-Indo-European root bhau (to strike). It is related to the Old Norse bauta, the Middle Low German bōten, the Old High German bōzzan, all meaning ‘to beat,’ and the Middle Irish búalaim (I hit), as well as the English word batter. It is also loosely related to the Latin word fūstis, which means stick. It has been used to refer to the sound heard when the heart is pumping, as in the figurative sense, it was thought to be hitting the chest. The meaning ‘to overcome someone in a contest’ dates back to the early 17th century, while the meaning ‘to legally escape, avoid blame’ originated in American slang in the 1920s. The noun comes from the verb, and was first used to mean ‘a beating’ as well as ‘the beating of a drum’ around the year 1300. The musical sense only dates back to the mid-19th century, and alludes to the conductor moving the baton to keep time. Before that, beat had a different meaning in music: a grace note, meant to ornament, always half a note beneath the main note, so they sounded almost as one if you didn’t listen closely. The adjective comes from the verb as well and, meaning ‘defeated or overcome by effort,’ dates back to the early 15th century. The figurative meaning (tired or exhausted) is an extension of the former, and first appeared in the early 20th century in the US.
- The thieves beat the old man mercilessly.
- The waves beat against the rocks.
- The jeweler beat the silver into a curved shape.
- Beat all the ingredients together until you have a smooth batter.
- I had a great time on vacation. Swimming in the sea sure beats being at work.
- It beats me how Jack got the job; he clearly doesn’t know what he’s doing.
- Fiona was nervous and could feel the rapid beat of her heart.
- Adam had been working for twelve hours and he was completely beat.
Words often used with beat
beat it: go away. Example: “The bartender told the drunk to beat it.”
beat up: injure someone by beating. Example: “The bullies beat Paul up and stole his lunch money.”
beat down: subdue, suppress. Example: “Deborah was terrified of flying, but determined to visit her daughter in Australia, so she beat down her fear and got on the plane anyway.”
beat off: literally, and always used with an object, this means ‘to chase or beat someone or something away from you.’ Example: “We managed to beat off our attackers and get away.” However, without an object, it has a vulgar meaning: to masturbate.
beat the rap: be found not guilty of a criminal charge. Example: “Everyone knew Simon did it, but he hired an expensive lawyer and managed to beat the rap.”