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While living in the USA, I have heard many people use the sentence “beats me” to mean “I don’t know”. Checking online, that’s seems a regular meaning:

slang A response when one does not know the answer to a question.

But most of the times I’ve heard the idiom, it seems to be in a negative context. Like with the meaning of “I don’t know, and I don’t care to find out because it’s unimportant or dumb”. In the Urban Dictionary, there’s a definition that implies this bad connotation, but it is mostly downvoted.

Does “beats me” have a bad connotation?

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    It can be used to convey more of the sense of "I don't care" than "I don't know". Like many such idioms it is highly sensitive to context and intonation. – Hot Licks Feb 19 '18 at 2:46
  • (Note that the "I don't know" meaning also carries some of the sense of "it's not very important anyway" that the "I don't care" meaning carries.) – Hot Licks Feb 19 '18 at 2:48
  • It can be just an admission that one doesn't know and that whatever is in question is mystifying. It does not necessarily mean that one doesn't care or the question is unimportant. There are several questions about politics today for which one might say "beats me". – ab2 ReinstateMonicaNow Feb 19 '18 at 3:31
  • Maybe it could seem a little informal for some contexts? But aside from that I don't think it's got negative connotations – Chromane Mar 21 '18 at 5:53
  • Maybe my confusion is because I feel “I don’t know” leaves a door open to continue the sentence with a “...but I will find out”, while “beats me” (without the “it”) it’s just that: “beats me.” – Alvaro Montoro Mar 21 '18 at 8:17
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Beats me does not necessarily have a bad connotation, or mean that the speaker thinks the question is unimportant or dumb.

From Macmillian Dictionary

used for saying that you do not know or understand something ‘Why did he do such a stupid thing?’ ‘It beats me.’

The stupid thing in the example above might be very important, but mystifying. For example: He wasn't drunk. He wasn't even in a hurry. Why didn't he fasten his seat belt?

Another example, from the Cambridge Dictionary:

It beats me how she got the job.

The speaker is mystified and why the other person got the job is very important to him/her. One can imagine the next sentences:

I'm going to look into it. I should have gotten that job. I have an MBA and more experience and I've been here longer. Maybe I should hire a lawyer.

  • A lot of the connotation depends on tone of voice and facial expression. When asked what the answer to a difficult math question is, a very confused student saying "beats me" is going to look and sound different from an apathetic student saying "beats me." – miltonaut Mar 21 '18 at 6:01

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