coined 1958 by San Francisco newspaper columnist Herb Caen (1916-1997) during the heyday of -nik suffixes in the wake of Sputnik. The first element is from Beat generation (1952), which is associated with beat (n.) in its meaning "rhythm (especially in jazz)" as well as beat (adj.) "worn out, exhausted." Century Dictionary (1902) has slang beat (n.) "a worthless, dishonest, shiftless fellow." Originator Jack Kerouac in 1958 connected it with beatitude.
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]
"Beat" is old carny slang. According to Beat Movement legend (and it is a movement with a deep inventory of legend), Ginsberg and Kerouac picked it up from a character named Herbert Huncke, a gay street hustler and drug addict from Chicago who began hanging around Times Square in 1939 (and who introduced William Burroughs to heroin, an important cultural moment). The term has nothing to do with music; it names the condition of being beaten down, poor, exhausted, at the bottom of the world. [Louis Menand, New Yorker, Oct. 1, 2007]
c. 1200, mēne, "shared by all, common, general," a sense now obsolete, shortened from imene, from Old English gemæne "common, public, general, universal, shared by all," from Proto-Germanic *ga-mainiz "possessed jointly" (source also of Old Frisian mene, Old Saxon gimeni, Middle Low German gemeine, Middle Dutch gemene, Dutch gemeen, German gemein, Gothic gamains "common"), from PIE *ko-moin-i- "held in common," a compound adjective formed from collective prefix *ko- "together" (Proto-Germanic *ga-) + *moi-n-, suffixed form of PIE root *mei- (1) "to change; exchange." Compare second element in common (adj.), a word with a sense evolution parallel to that of this word.
Meaning "of common or low origin, inferior in rank or status" (of persons) is attested from early 14c. Sense of "ordinary, inferior in attainment or skill" is from late 14c. Also from late 14c. as "poor in quality, of little value," though this sense survived longer in American than in England. James Stirling, in "Letters from the Slave States" [London, 1857], mentioning mean whites (poor whites in the South who do manual labor and are looked down on by the slaves) notes, " 'Mean' is an Americanism for 'poor,' 'shabby.' They speak here of a 'mean' hotel, a 'mean' dinner, &c."
The pejorative sense of "without dignity of mind, destitute of honor, low-minded" is from 1660s; the specific sense of "stingy, niggardly" is recorded by 1755; the weaker sense of "disobliging, pettily offensive" is from 1839, originally American English slang. All these developments of the English word were furthered by its coincidence in form with mean (adj.2) "middle, middling," which also was used in disparaging senses, and OED notes that some usages of mean it cites "might be referred almost equally to the native and to the foreign adj.; the truth is probably that they are of mixed ancestry."
The inverted sense of "remarkably good" (as in plays a mean Rhythm Master) first recorded c. 1900, perhaps from phrase no mean _______ "not inferior" (1590s, also, "not average," reflecting further confusion with mean (adj.2.)).
eighteenth letter of the English alphabet, traceable to Phoenician and always representing more or less the same sound, which in many languages is typically so resonant and continuous as to be nearly akin to the vowels, but in English is closer to -l-.
It was aspirated at the start of words (hr-) in Old English, as in Greek, but this was abandoned in English spelling and pronunciation by the end of the Old English period, but the rh- spelling survives in many words borrowed from Greek. In many languages and some dialects (e.g. Scottish) it is pronounced with a distinct trilling vibration of the tongue-tip, which gave it its ancient nickname of "the dog letter;" in other regional dialects (e.g. Boston) it is omitted unless followed by a vowel, while in others it is introduced artificially in pronunciation ("idear," "drawring").
If all our r's that are written are pronounced, the sound is more common than any other in English utterance (over seven per cent.); the instances of occurrence before a vowel, and so of universal pronunciation, are only half as frequent. There are localities where the normal vibration of the tip of the tongue is replaced by one of the uvula, making a guttural trill, which is still more entitled to the name of "dog's letter" than is the ordinary r; such are considerable parts of France and Germany; the sound appears to occur only sporadically in English pronunciation. [Century Dictionary]
Louise Pound ("The Humorous 'R'") notes that in British humorous writing, -ar- "popularly indicates the sound of the vowel in father" and formations like larf (for laugh) "are to be read with the broad vowel but no uttered r."
The moment we encounter the added r's of purp or dorg in our reading we know that we have to do with humor, and so with school-marm. The added consonants are supposed to be spoken, if the words are uttered, but, as a matter of fact, they are less often uttered than seen. The words are, indeed, largely visual forms; the humor is chiefly for the eye. [Louise Pound, "The Humorous 'R,'" American Mercury, October 1924]
She also quotes Henry James on the characteristic prominence of the medial -r- sound (which tends to be dropped in England and New England) in the speech of the U.S. Midwest, "under some strange impulse received toward consonantal recovery of balance, making it present even in words from which it is absent, bringing it in everywhere as with the small vulgar effect of a sort of morose grinding of the back teeth."
In a circle, meaning "registered (trademark)," attested by 1925. R&R "rest and relaxation," is attested by 1953, American English; R&B "rhythm and blues" (type of popular music) is attested by 1949, American English. Form three Rs, see Three Rs.