Hey, procrastination can be hard work, y’know.
Dear Word Detective: Recently, President Obama criticized his political opponents in Congress for causing the country to be a “deadbeat” by failing to pay its debts. Leaving aside the politics, why “deadbeat”? Stiffing your creditors seems to have no connection to “dead” or “beat,” and combining the words only increases the puzzle. — Harvey.
You’ve been watching (or reading) the news again, haven’t you? C’mon, gang, we talked about this. Just say no. That way lies madness. Personally, I’ve decided to devote my disposable time to close consideration of the SyFy cable channel, purveyors of such fine dramas as the recent “Sharknado.” To this end I spent about an hour today (it seemed like weeks, actually) watching something called “Piranhaconda.” True, the title was the best part of this bizarre mess, but it still beats the Outrage du Jour Tape Loop on CNN.
In any case, I had not realized that this fine country had become a “deadbeat,” but I am nothing if not adaptable and will cease paying my bills forthwith.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines a “deadbeat” in the sense you mention as “A worthless idler who sponges on his friends; a sponger, loafer,” and Merriam-Webster chimes in with “one who persistently fails to pay personal debts or expenses.” The term “deadbeat” first appeared in the early 19th century with the somewhat different meaning of “completely beat” or “utterly exhausted.” “Beat” as an adjective, which originally meant literally “beaten” (as with a stick), had by the mid-18th century come to mean “worn out; exhausted” or “overcome by ill fortune or obstacles.” The “dead” in “deadbeat” is “dead” in the sense of “absolutely, completely,” as in “dead asleep.”
But in the mid-19th century a sightly different figurative sense of the verb “to beat” appeared, this one meaning “to cheat; swindle, defraud” a sense based on “to beat” meaning “to be victorious” as in “beating” an opponent in sports (“The … people who try to beat the street car conductors out of their fare.” 1904). “Beat” was also used as a noun to mean “a swindler or cheat,” especially a soldier who shirked duty or pretended to be injured (“The original idea of a beat was that of a lazy man or a shirk who would by hook or by crook get rid of all military or fatigue duty that he could.” 1887).
Eventually this “swindler, shirker” sense of “beat” superseded the “very tired” sense of the word in “deadbeat,” which resulted in the modern use of the term to mean “sponger or loafer.” One of the most common uses of the term today is in the alliterative “deadbeat dad,” a 1980s coinage meaning a man who does not live with his children and refuses to contribute to their support.