Deadbeats and Bums

Isn’t it curious that, when you garnish a man’s dinner plate, you add something to it, such as a sprig of parsley, but when you garnish his wages, you take something away?

The word garnish is derived from the old German warnon, from which we also have the word warning; and this old word warnon covered both the warning and the state of having been warned.  We find the same collection of ideas when we say that a man has been cautioned, is now cautious, and is therefore taking precautions.  Likewise, when a man was warned he grew wary, and a wary man garnished himself against the danger of which he had been warned.

Thus, to garnish originally meant to prepare one’s self for battle, either by strapping on armor and armaments, or by fortifying one’s abode.  For example, here is a line from an early English translation of a twelfth-century French history of the First Crusade:

“The other barons accorded that they should set the siege forthwith, without delay, for if the enemies that were in the city had the respite they should garnish them better of men, of armors, of engines, and of other stores than they had then.” (1)

A sprig of parsley may seem far removed from grim men armed for battle, but the name of the decorative garnish is ultimately descended from this sense of furnished with defenses.

A man’s wages are garnished when legal fences are furnished to prevent his using some portion of his own wages.  This normally happens to a debtor in default or the loser in a law suit.  The wages of a so-called “deadbeat dad” are also garnished, which is to say that some portion of those wages are placed where there is no danger that he will use them for purposes other than child support.

The expression “dead beat” came out of the Civil War, when a great many men had very good reasons to describe themselves as utterly exhausted.  Beat meant tired, and dead was an apposite intensifier (e.g. “you’re dead wrong”).  But in the army, the word deadbeat denoted a man who affected fatigue to shirk work.  A deadbeat was a malingerer who merely feigned exhaustion.  This is evident in this line from a Civil War memoir. Speaking of a beloved officer, the writer says,

“He was quick to discriminate between the occasional weakness of a good, true soldier and the habitual faults of a ‘deadbeat.’  He would forgive or ignore many trifling offenses . . . but a man who shirked in camp or skulked in battle need expect no mercy from him.” (2)

This meaning should be born in mind when we read this line from a short story published in a women’s magazine in 1865.  It is spoken by a husband who, shirking his domestic duties, is just about to slip out on his wife and spend an evening with the boys.

“I’m dead beat with working all day, and must go out and get brightened up a little.” (3)

Although the expression “dead beat” may at first have been used to describe a genuine state of extreme fatigue, it was so enthusiastically adopted as an excuse by slackers and shirkers, that it quickly became a term of irony and opprobrium.  If one soldier said that another soldier was “dead beat,” he meant that soldier was just pretending to be tired, and that he was in fact a no-good loafer who would not pull his weight.

After the war, the title of deadbeat was extended to any man who would not pay his way.  A railroad passenger who traveled without a ticket was said to be “deadbeating a ride,” for instance; and a renter who decamped under cover of night was called a “deadbeat tenant.”  In such cases, there was often a strong suggestion that the deadbeat was merely feigning poverty in order to defraud the railroad or the landlord.

That deadbeats were suspected of hiding behind false excuses can be seen in the very title “deadbeat,” since being “dead beat” was the deadbeat’s first excuse!

Interestingly, the nearly synonymous word bum was also a child of the Civil War.  It most likely came from the German bummeln, which means to stroll, wander and loaf without any clear purpose or employment.  In the Civil War, the title of “bummer” was therefore given to the “irregular foragers” of the Union Army who scavenged the countryside and stole whatever they could lay their hands on.  In the words of one Southern historian of the war,

“Sherman had in his army a service . . . of so-called ‘bummers.’  The wretches thus curiously designated, were allowed as irregular foragers to eat up and plunder the country, often going twenty miles from the main columns to burn, to steal, to commit nameless crimes, always assured of welcome to the main body if they returned with horses embellished with strings of poultry or stolen vehicles laden with supplies.” (4)

After the War, the title of bummer, or bum, passed to any scrounging vagrant who lived without working.  Like their military namesakes, these men kept themselves alive by “irregular foraging,” by pilfering the hen houses, gardens and clothes’ lines of working people.  The bum was a deadbeat who refused to pull his weight or pay his way, and who lived (however modestly) by scrounging off the toil of honest men.  (This is the source of expressions like “bum a cigarette” and “bum a ride.”)

It is significant that both of these words came out of the Civil War, and that both were found to have such wide application in the years that followed.  Like every war, the Civil War was profoundly demoralizing.  It created a large population of young men accustomed to violence, addicted to thrills, and disinclined to settle down to the drudgery of life on a farm.  Some of these young men became the “drifters” and “outlaws” of the Wild West.  It also created an industrial economy with pronounced cycles of depression and unemployment, during each of which deadbeats and bums proliferated.  It also gave rise to the nation’s first opioid crisis, which began with efforts to alleviate pain, but soon became a rush to escape reality.  Where there is widespread drug addiction, there will be a great many deadbeats and bums.

And on top of all this, the Civil War seems to have spread the habit of malingering and feigned disability by human parasites.  There were sharpers and confidence men before the War, but it was only after the war that Americans prided themselves on their hard-boiled cynicism and guile.  Feigned disability was not new, but four years of camp life gave many young farm boys an education in malingering from which they never recovered.

1) William Caxton, Godeffroy of Boloyne (1481).

2) Augustus Buell, The Cannoneer: Recollections of Service on the Army of the Potomac (1890).  Buell mentions that “coffee cooler” was another name for a deadbeat.  Another writer elaborates:

“If I were called upon to define the name ‘Coffee Cooler,’ I should say: He belongs to the genus tramp, shirked all work, avoided all danger, and could invariably be found where duty did not call.” Edwin Forbes, Thirty Years After: An Artist’s Story of the Great War (1890).

3) Mary H. Seymour, “Ten Years Married,” The Peterson’s Lady’s Magazine (1865).

4) Edward Alfred Pollard, The Lost Cause: A New Southern History of the War of the Confederates (1866).

17 thoughts on “Deadbeats and Bums

  1. Funny: I was just talking to my wife about Sherman’s Bummers before I read your article. Poor fellows; they were doing the lion’s share of the work stealing and transporting all of these valuables, only to be subjected to the outrage of having four-fifths of their loot confiscated and unequally distributed amongst the officers, with the additional injustice imposed of having to divide the remaining fifth between the soldiers of their own rank. This arrangement some of them declared to be very unfair to them. And one can easily imagine how it must have shocked their moral sensibilities to have been treated that way. Ha, ha.

  2. Pingback: Deadbeats and Bums | Reaction Times

  3. I enjoyed this very much. Thanks.

    I quite like that Americans have so many words for the various sorts of bums, parasites, crooks, grifters, and conmen, as well as the suckers on whom they prey. I suppose it might imply something unflattering about us, but I prefer to see a certain folk wisdom in it. We are very alert to the many ways that unscrupulous fellows might be trying to trick us out of our money.

    • I always find it interesting when a culture develops multiple words for the same thing. An anecdote I hear quoted often is that the Inuit have hundreds of words for snow. We Americans have dozens (hopefully not hundreds) of words for pulling one over on his fellow man. An inuit lived in and around snow so much that he had to figure out how to differentiate one kind of snow from another. So too, in American society, must we differentiate the vices of our fellow man.

      • Words come into being because they are useful. This is also why they survive. Deadbeat and bum came into being under special circumstances, but once they came into being, people saw they could be used to describe related characters. Political correctness has been trying to replace bum with homeless person for forty years, but I doubt they will ever succeed. Homelessness is accidental, but bums are essentially bums.

      • Although the idea that the Inuit have a huge number of words for “snow” is a popular notion, the linguist Geoffrey Pullum debunked this in the title essay of his book The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax and Other Irreverent Essays on the Study of Language.

  4. This may be a universal human trait, but we Americans seem to be cynical and shrewd until the conman starts working his grift. Then we are total suckers. I see this in myself. I’m a theoretical cynic, but a practical sap. You’ve given me an idea for my next post!

    • I’m a theoretical cynic, but a practical sap.

      Convincing the mark that he is actually a perspicacious man of the world and that is precisely why he should put his money in your chosen scheme is a time-honoured tactic of confidence tricksters, or should I say projectors.

  5. On the eastern shores of the pond, the noun ‘bum’ has since Middle English times generally referred to that part of the anatomy upon which we sit; whereas the verb has for centuries been used to indicate a booming or buzzing sound. These usages can be found variously in Chaucer, Langland etc.
    However, when we consider that in Old English, ‘býme-sangere’ literally means ‘trumpet singer’, the connection should not be too hard to discover.
    In Scotland, a ‘heid-bummer’ is a manager who (it is generally thought) sits on his bum and makes a lot of noise – while doing little but live off the labour of his workers.

    • I think most Americans know that the buttocks can be referred to as a bum, but they seldom do so. If we wish to disparage a lazy man by referring to his posture, we say that he won’t get off his butt. I don’t know if our knowledge of this sense of bum is residual, or if it comes from contemporary consumption of British entertainment. There are some other words that prompt this question. If it is residual, the old usage is found among uneducated people. If it is a novelty, it is found among the sort of people who read British novels and watch British television programs. “Cheers” as a valediction is a recent example of the later. Until very recently, “cheers” was in America only a toast, and never said without raising a glass. Now its a popular sigh-off, especially in email.

      • It may be both: residual in the hill country and novel through the likes of Monty Python and Basil Fawlty on tv and the effect of so many American servicemen serving in the UK and Europe after WWII.

  6. I wonder why the warrior aristocracies of Europe do not become those bums and deadbeats as a result of war and the men of the civil war do.
    Perhaps because without fiefdoms that’s what they would end up being?

  7. Pingback: Cantandum in Ezkhaton 02/24/19 | Liberae Sunt Nostrae Cogitatiores


Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.