Q From Tracey: What is the origin of to beat the band, as in phrases like it was raining to beat the band. Is there any reason — beyond muddling one’s phrases — why one would use to beat the banshee instead of to beat the band?
A I’ve come across a few examples of to beat the banshee; it makes a sort of sense, banshees in legend being known to wail loudly; but as they traditionally do so only when somebody is about to die, it’s perhaps not a good analogy when you are trying to say that something is being done or is happening to a superlative degree. But you’re right, of course, to suggest that it’s a variation on the older to beat the band. There’s quite a history of attempts to explain this phrase.
Eric Partridge (whom several reference works follow) suggested it was linked to a yet older expression to beat Banagher, to surpass everything, which is known from 1830. Banagher is a town on the Shannon in County Offaly, Ireland; before the Great Reform Act of 1832 it was a rotten or pocket borough, one which sent two members to Parliament but which had a tiny electorate controlled by the local magnate, who therefore had the election “in his pocket”. It is said that when somebody referred to a particularly egregious example of a rotten borough, say one in which every voter was a man employed by the landowner, the reply might come back “Well, that beats Banagher”. The story sounds highly suspect, not least because there’s an entry in Captain Francis Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue of 1785 which says: “He beats Banaghan; an Irish saying of one who tells wonderful stories. Perhaps Banaghan was a minstrel famous for dealing in the marvellous”. So it’s far from certain that the original had anything to do with Irish rotten boroughs.
Whatever the original form, and despite those who advocate it, it’s unlikely to be the true origin of to beat the band, for two reasons. Firstly, the American version of the Banagher story always seems to have been in the form that bangs Banagher, as here from The Living Age of 1844: “That bangs Banagher, and all the world knows Banagher bangs the devil”. Secondly, to beat the band appears only at the end of that century (it’s recorded first from 1897) and originally seems to have turned up in direct references to music making. As here in a story, The Transit of Gloria Mundy (ho, ho) by Chester Bailey Fernald in The Century magazine in 1899: “Then it was ‘The Sweet By and By,‘ with all hands going as ye please in the chorus, and she belting the little music-box to beat the band”. And here in a little skit of 1900 by Guy Wetmore Carryl, The Sycophantic Fox and the Gullible Raven, in which he humorously retells Aesop’s fable:
“Sweet fowl,” he said, “I understand
You’re more than merely natty:
I hear you sing to beat the band
And Adelina Patti.
Pray render with your liquid tongue
A bit from ‘Gotterdammerung’.”
I’m fairly sure that to beat the band originally meant that you sang or played or shouted louder even than an orchestra and so, by later extension, came to refer to anything superlative. Just for once, the common-sense explanation may be the correct one, and there’s no need to invoke Irish towns or Irish storytellers, let alone banshees.