The Grammarphobia Blog

Is it hip to be square?

Q: I don’t know if this is apocryphal or not, but many people believe the term “hip” comes from “on the hip,” a reference to smoking opium while reclining on one’s side. (See Julie Christie in the great Altman film McCabe and Mrs. Miller.)

A: When Pat thinks of Julie Christie, she imagines her wreathed in smoke in that opium den, but Stewart sees her bundled in sables (as in Doctor Zhivago). But on to your question.

It’s not likely that the adjective “hip” comes from the phrase “on the hip” (engaged in smoking opium). That’s because “hip” arrived on the scene a couple of decades earlier.

The term “hip” (in the sense of “fully aware” or “in the know”) dates back to 1902 when it appeared in a cartoon by T. A. Dorgan, according to Jonathan Lighter’s Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang.

But the phrase “on the hip” was first recorded in reference to recumbent opium smokers in a 1921 article in Variety.

The Oxford English Dictionary has a slightly later date for the first appearance of “hip,”  a 1904 novel by George Vere Hobart called Jim Hickey, in which a character says, “are you hip?”

The OED has no citations for “on the hip” in the narcotics sense.

But it has several citations for this and similar phrases with very different meanings: “at a disadvantage” or “in a position in which one is likely to be overthrown or overcome.”

These senses date back to the 15th century and have their origin in wrestling, the OED says.

But getting back to the adjective “hip,” both Lighter and the OED say it’s American slang of unknown origin. So is the similar word “hep.”

The OED defines “hep” as meaning “well-informed, knowledgeable, ‘wise to,’ up-to-date; smart, stylish.”

The first citation in the OED is from the Saturday Evening Post of  December 1908: “What puzzles me is how you can find anybody left in the world who isn’t hep.”

But Lighter says that “both hip and hep appear in print at about the same time.” His first citation for the latter word (spelled “hept”) is from 1903.

With citations so close together, it’s hard to say definitively whether “hip” or “hep” came first.

But as Lighter says, “hip” is more common nationally and has been since about 1960. And he says it was the common form of the phrase “much earlier among blacks, esp. jazz musicians.”

Joey Lee Dillard, in his book Black English: Its History and Usage in the United States (1972), says it’s “a commonplace of the jazz language that hep is a white man’s distortion of the more characteristically Negro hip.”

We can’t vouch for the truth of that. Many claims have been made about “hip,” including the one by Huey Lewis and the News that it’s hip to be square.

The lexicographer Jesse Sheidlower, writing in Slate, has explored the word’s etymology and debunked a theory that it came from a West African language.

When “hip” first appeared, Sheidlower points out, the word meant merely aware or in the know, and “it was not widely used by African-Americans.”

“It wasn’t until the late 1930s and early 1940s, during the jive era,” he writes, “that the modern senses—‘sophisticated; currently fashionable; fully up-to-date’—arose. (These senses did arise among African-Americans.)”

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