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Beat

Q From Horace Krever: I have exhausted my not inconsiderable collection of reference books in a search to find the origin, and explanation for the use, of the noun beat in the expressions police officer’s beat and news reporter’s beat. I would be grateful for any help you can give.

A It seems, from my own searches, that lexicographers are as much in doubt about its source as are you. There are so many senses of beat, both noun and verb (the Oxford English Dictionary lists 33 separate senses for the verb and its compound phrases and 17 more for the noun) that establishing an unequivocal connection isn’t easy.

There’s no doubt that the origin lies in the verb, meaning to strike with repeated blows, which was already in existence in Old English. Two possible origins are suggested in particular and both are plausible. One derives from the idea of the feet hitting the ground, either in walking or running. Compounds such as to beat a path and beaten track come from this. The OED also suggests to beat the streets as an example, a rare phrasing which appears here:

A time of need followed, during which Hall Caine beat the streets of London in search of work.

McClure’s Magazine, Dec. 1895.

You might argue that that is using beat in the other likely sense, that of beating the ground to drive game towards hunters, which is known in several set phrases of various ages — beating the bushes, to beat the town for recruits, beat over old ground, or to beat about the bush. Both reporters and police might reasonably be said to beat the urban landscape in the hope of flushing out stories or criminals.

However, there’s another aspect which I think enables us to choose between these two possibilities. A beat for a constable refers to a regular route which he traverses on foot (walking the beat is the usual way to describe the activity). It appears in the regulations of Sir Robert Peel’s new Metropolitan Police Force of London at the time of their establishment in September 1829:

Each Sergeant’s party, when on duty, will have charge of its respective section of the division, each Police Constable having a beat appropriated to him within the section.

Reproduced in The Morning Post, 25 Sep. 1829.

That surely links his route to the beating a path sense. Though a journalist’s beat usually implies a subject area — politics, courts, labour issues — rather than a physical circuit, I strongly suspect from the dating of the latter usage (the late 1890s in the US) that it derives from the police sense, not least because a reporter at that time would gather stories largely on foot.

It is often suggested that the old British ceremony of beating the bounds might be relevant. In the days before maps, the only good way of keeping the boundaries of parishes fresh in the minds of inhabitants was to make a regular formal circuit, stopping at key landmarks. Boys beat the landmarks with willow or birch rods to help them remember their importance. At times the boys were beaten to reinforce their memories. Though the ceremony no longer has any useful function it is maintained in a few places as a tradition. Though this is obviously a circuit or set route, it's unclear to what extent, if at all, beating the bounds contributed to the idea of the regular beat of a police officer.

Page created 26 Nov. 2011

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Last modified: 26 November 2011.