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The meaning and origin of the expression: To beat the band

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To beat the band

What's the meaning of the phrase 'To beat the band'?

To beat the band is to do something to surpass all others and draw attention to yourself, either by being louder, more vigorous or more expert than others.

The allusion is to a musical band. Someone would have to be very loud and noticeable to 'beat the band' by drowning it out or drawing attention away from it.

What's the origin of the phrase 'To beat the band'?

I have to say at the outset that no one is sure about the origin of this phrase, which is known in its present form since the 1890s.

There are a few candidate theories and it's worth checking them out to see if they make sense.

To beat the bandThe expression is often said to be of Irish origin, referring either to Banagher, a pretty town on the River Shannon, or Banaghan, an Irish story teller.

There certainly has been an expression 'that beats Banagher' in use it Ireland since at least the 1830s, as in this example from the Philadelphia newspaper The National Gazette, May 1823:

"That beats Banagher," as we Irishmen say.

'That beats Banaghan' is earlier still and is found in Captain Francis Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, 1785 :

"He beats Banaghan; an Irish saying of one who tells wonderful stories. Perhaps Banaghan was a minstrel famous for dealing in the marvellous."

As is usually the case with Irish folk history, the sources of these expressions are cloudy and vague. Many of the early citations are to a yet earlier extended form of the phrase - 'that beats Banagher/Banaghan and Banagher/Banaghan beats the Devil'.

Whatever the source of the above phrases they differ from the version we now use - 'beat the band'. There's no real reason to believe 'beat Banagher/Banaghan' and 'beat the band' are variants of the same phrase. They certainly are both bona fide English phrases and they have similar meaning but they aren't otherwise connected.

The real origin of 'beat the band' appears to be America rather than Ireland. The earliest printed example of it that I can find is in the New York newspaper The Buffalo Enquirer, September 1891:

"I'm running to beat the band today".

None of the early citations of the phrase make any literal reference to a musical band. The phrase seems to have had a figurative meaning from the start - the band being 'all others' rather than a group of musical performers.

To beat the bandThe expression must have spread quite quickly in the USA. It appears - in quotes but without the advertisers feeling the need to explain its meaning - in this advert in The Boston Globe September 1896.