People surround us. Words surround us. The words we use for people surround us. And things can get tricky.
We might fall into traps of not knowing better with some words, like “gypsy,” which is often considered a racial slur to people of the Roma population—along with the word “gyped,” as in “I was gyped,” which stems from this “gypsy” word. So, hint on that, it’s one you probably want to cut from your vocabulary.
I could go way, way deeper on language that offends—clearly—but what got me started on this concept of words for groups is the word “hipster.” Some words are cooler than cool, and this is one of them. Hipster. And is it related to hippie?
Hip hip hooray. Hip. Hep. Let’s get excited, folks. This is the Words You Should Know podcast, Season 3, Episode 5.
Season 3, Episode 5: Where Do We Get the Word “Hipster”?
Digging into to this episode’s word of choice, “hipster”… It feels so modern, right? Well, it does to me anyhow, but it really shouldn’t. Get this: While its most recent revival has brought it back into the language spotlight, “hipster” is actually a pretty old word.
Maybe you think of cool cats, dames, and dolls when you think of the 1920s, ’30s and ‘40s, but you know what else you should think of? Hipsters. Yep. And this discovery totally made me excited. I had no idea.
One of the earliest known uses of “hipster” is an article in the New York Tribune complaining about the drinkers in New York hotel dining rooms around the start of Prohibition. Why were they called “hipsters”? Because of the flasks hidden on their hips, of course!
It makes perfect sense. I’m not sure it will work with skinny jeans, though…
There was also Cab Calloway’s Hepster’s Dictionary, published in 1938, which was an introduction to the slang of musicians working in New York’s Harlem. It became the official reference of “jive slang” in the New York Public Library, and it has the honor of being the first English dictionary published by an African-American man or woman. Personally I love the wordplay of the “Hepster’s Dictionary” as opposed to “Webster’s Dictionary.” With the aid of this dictionary, you too could become “hep to the jive.”
Yep, I said “hep” there, not “hip.”
Different forms of “hip” and “help” have been part of English language slang with some meaning of “cool” for more than 100 years. The origin of these words is a bit muddier, though, with lots of possibilities and nothing quite as clear as the hipsters with their hip flasks.
According to everything I’ve been able to find, “hep” was first recorded in the Cincinnati Enquirer in 1903. “Hip” was first recorded in a wonderfully casual, dialogue-filled short novel in 1904, George V. Hobart’s Jim Hickey: A Story of One-Night Stands.
And if I gave you that book title, I bet you anything you wouldn’t have guessed that it was written in 1904. In fact, I feel like I just read that story…
Even back in these earliest uses, “hip” and “hep” held the meaning of being trendy, world-wise, and sophisticated.
So, if “hipsters” and “hepsters” were around in the 1930s, then you can see the cool evolution of “hip” on its journey. 1940 brought us “hepcats,” and roughly 1965 brought us “hippie,” again with this definition returning of young people who are rejecting the rules of their society in one way or another.
“Hipster” as we know it today seems to have returned in recent decades, but according to the written record, it never quite died out.
So what do we say to that?
Hip hip hallelujah. No, that’s not right. Hip hip hooray.
The American writer Catherine Drinker Bowen, who won the National Book Award in 1958, once said “For your born writer, nothing is so healing as the realization that he has come upon the right word.” Who of you out there relates? I know I do. And I’ll take it one step further.
The right word can be lightning when it strikes, igniting a story, a sentence, an idea, however you’re communicating it. But for me, knowing the context and history of that word—where it’s come from, where it’s been, where it might be going—that is not only healing. It’s empowering.
Hip hip hooray to that, whether you consider yourself a hipster, a hippie, or otherwise.
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And if you’re looking for an Elements of Style for the Twitter Generation, check out my book, Get a Grip On Your Grammar: 250 Writing and Editing Reminders for the Curious or Confused. Newbery-winning author Meg Medina says, “You should keep a copy on your desk.” Sounds like good advice to me!
Words. Language. Communications. You’ve got this.