Work louder, please.
Dear Word Detective: I find myself and others using the expression “to beat the band” to indicate something is being done well, thoroughly, or furiously. Where does the phrase originate? — Pat Edgar.
Good question. That’s one of those “I can’t believe that I’ve been saying (or seeing or hearing) that expression my whole life and never stopped to wonder what it really meant” questions. While that’s not a revelation on a par with “My Prius hates me,” it’s a little embarrassing for someone in my position. I’m supposed to at least notice such things and, optimally, to figure them out before I’m asked.
The first thing that popped into my mind on considering “beat the band” was the “Stump the Band” routine that Johnny Carson made a staple of his tenure on the Tonight Show on NBC. I was never a big fan of Carson (though he now seems a veritable Noel Coward compared to his successors), but somehow I managed to catch this bit at least a hundred times. Johnny would ask an audience member to name an obscure song, and if the band couldn’t play it (or even if they could), the contestant would win dinner for two at someplace no one had ever heard of.
Unfortunately, none of that has anything to do with “beat the band” meaning, as you say, to exceed or excel in doing something, especially in a energetic or forceful manner (“You certainly are working to beat the band just now,” P.G. Wodehouse, 1920). “Beat the band” first appeared in print, as far as we know, in the late 19th century. Interestingly, another “band” phrase, “when the band begins to play,” was current at the same time, meaning “when things get serious,” or what we might today call “crunch time” (“It’s send for Bucky quick when the band begins to play,” 1910). I think it’s significant that both of these phrases arose at a time when recording technology was in its infancy and music was almost always heard live, whether in a music hall or at a concert in the park.
I had always assumed that “beat the band” definitely had something to do with “band” in the musical sense, but I notice that Michael Quinion, at his World Wide Words website (www.worldwidewords.org), points out that the eminent etymologist Eric Partridge had a different theory. In his Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (1961), Partridge suggested that “beat the band” was developed from the older phrase “to beat Banagher,” Banagher being a famously corrupt village in Ireland. Something outrageously corrupt or unfair was said “to beat [be worse than] Banagher,” meaning to surpass the accepted standard.
But while Banagher does exist and apparently at one time had that reputation, the likely origin of “beat the band” is simpler, and simply musical. To “beat the band” means literally to drown out the sound of a brass band with whatever you are doing, and thus, metaphorically, to excel or surpass the standard to such a degree that all eyes turn toward you (“I was on the box-seat driving, you know, — lickety-split, to beat the band,” 1897).
Incidentally, the use of “to beat” to mean “to surpass, excel” is simply a modern use of “to beat” in its older military sense meaning “to defeat or vanquish.” The use of “beat” in other phrases equivalent in meaning to “beat the band” (“to beat anything,” “to beat all,” etc.) dates back to the early19th century (“Well!’ I says, ‘if this don’t beat everything!’,” Charles Dickens, 1863).