Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Etymology of Hip

From glib indifference to brazen flaunting, everyone has their own take on what's hip. The etymology of the word itself is as diffuse as its sense, with etymologists having a wide range of takes on how the word entered the slang lexicon.

One line of thinking holds that the word "hip" comes from a word in the Wolof language of West Africa: hepicat, meaning "one who has his eyes open." This is plausible, as it is a bit unclear how the term "hip cat" came into popularity, and the general sense of hipness is to be in the know, and certainly with one's eyes open.

Another theory posits that the term came about during the early days of drug culture in the West, where influential thinkers dabbled with opium while reclining on their sides, sitting on their hips. Seriously, there's etymologists who argue this was the origin of the word "hip," presumably between munching on cheese curls and postulating "what if, like, the whole universe is really just the size of my pinky nail, man," etc.

The etymology that makes sense to me is discussed in William and Mary Morris's dictionary of word origins. During the first half of the 1900's, soldiers would march in military to the drum of "HEP, two, three, four-HEP, two, three, four." Jazz musicians interacting with soldiers or returning from war incorporated the term "hep" into their vocabulary and started using it to refer to musicians who were able to keep time. Later, the term spread within the jazz community as hep people who were in the know, and word eventually to denote people who could keep time with other trends.

If this is actually the case, then we are left with the particularly odd conclusion that origins of the word "hippy" are rooted in the boots of military marching orders. Groovy.

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