The Grammarphobia Blog

How hip is a hippie?

Q: I’m working on a story about a “hippie” from the 1960s, and need some insight on the origin the term. I’ve searched your blog and your book Origins of the Specious, without finding it. Elsewhere, there’s a plethora of guesses. I need something more certain.

A: “Hippie” has led two lives, which may account for some of the lexical confusion.

When the word showed up in the 1950s, it was a disparaging term for a “hipster,” someone up on the latest trends, especially in jazz.

But in the ’60s, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, “hippie” came to mean a young person characterized by such things as long hair, unconventional clothes, drug use, and countercultural values.

That’s the short answer, and it’s generally true, but it’s hard to tell from some written examples in the early ’60s whether “hippie” is being used to mean someone up on the latest trends or an unconventional young person.

In other words, there’s a certain amount of uncertainty as to when the first life of “hippie” ended and the second began. And things get even more uncertain when one looks for the ultimate origin of the term. Now for the longer answer.

The “hippie” story begins in the early 20th century with the adjectives “hip” and “hep,” both meaning “in the know,” “up to date,” or “knowledgeable.” As we’ve said in a 2010 post on the blog, the two terms showed up in print around the same time—”hip” in 1902 and “hep” in 1903.

With written citations so close together, it’s hard to say definitively whether “hip” or “hep” showed up first in spoken language.

Jonathan Lighter, editor of the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, suggests that “hep” may have been first, saying the alteration of “e” to “i” in the word “is phonologically perhaps more likely than the reverse.”

The earliest example for “hip” in Random House is from a 1902 cartoon by T. A. Dorgan that shows a boy carrying a sign reading “Joe Hip / For Congress / Son of old man Hip.”

The slang dictionary’s next citation, which also appears in the Oxford English Dictionary, is from Jim Hickey, a 1904 novel by George Vere Hobart, in which a character says, “Say, Danny, at this rate it’ll take about 629 shows to get us to Jersey City, are you hip?” (We’ve expanded the citation to add context.)

The earliest Random House example for “hep” (initially spelled “hept”) is from the May 9, 1903, issue of the Cincinnati Enquirer: “Modern Slang Glossary … Hept — To get wise or next.” [As a slang term, “next” meant “in the know.”]

The following citation, with the usual spelling, is from a 1904 T. A. Dorgan cartoon: “Take it easy now fellers, one of you stay behind so that no one will get hep.”

The ealiest example for “hep” in the OED is from the Dec. 5, 1908, issue of the Saturday Evening Post: “What puzzles me is how you can find anybody left in the world who isn’t hep.”

During the first half of the 20th century, the two words took on many senses related to their original “in the know” or “up to date” meaning, according to Random House, including “shrewd,” “sophisticated,” “smart,” “in fashion,” “splendid,” “enjoyable,” and “infatuated.”

As for the ultimate etymology here, both the slang dictionary and the OED list the origin of “hip” and “hep” as unknown. Chambers agrees.

Lighter, the Random House editor, notes that “hip” has been more common than “hep” since about 1960. And he adds that “hip” was the common form of the term “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.”

The lexicographer Jesse Sheidlower, writing in Slate, has explored the word’s etymology and debunked a theory that “hip” 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.)”

As for the noun “hipster,” the earliest example in Random House is from the Nov. 7, 1940, issue of Current History and Forum: “A hipster never teaches a square anything.”

The dictionary defines the term as someone who is or tries to be hip—that is, in the know or with it—especially a fan of swing or bebop music.

When “hippie” first showed up, according to the slang dictionary, it had pretty much the same meaning as “hipster,” but it was “often used derisively.”

The first Random House citation is from Flee the Angry Strangers, a 1952 novel by George Mandel about the drug world: “Every junkie and hippie came to sit around her table.”

The next example, from the Aug. 18, 1957, issue of the New York Times Magazine, offers a colorful definition: “Hippy—Generic for a character who is super-cool, over-blasé, so far out that he appears to be asleep when he’s digging something the most.”

In the third citation, “Madison Avenue hippies” are on the cutting edge of culture: “Upper Bohemia, tired of Van Gogh, Italian movies, charades, and sex, and so ready to try anti-art, anti-sex, anti-frantic non-movement.” (From “The American as Hipster,” an essay by Herbert Gold, originally published in the February 1958 issue of Playboy as “The Beat Mystique.”)

A few years after “hippie” showed up in its first incarnation, the term “beatnik” arrived on the scene for a member of the Beat Generation, and more generally for someone leading an unconventional life.

In “The Origin of Beatnik,” a 1975 paper by Richard Rex in American Speech, the San Francisco columnist Herb Caen is credited with coining the term.

Caen’s April 2, 1958, column in the San Francisco Chronicle, has this item: “Look magazine, preparing a picture spread on S.F.’s beat generation (oh, no, not AGAIN!), hosted a party in a No. Beach house for 50 beatniks, and by the time word got around the sour grapevine, over 250 bearded cats and kits were on hand, slopping up Mike Cowles’ free booze. They’re only beat, y’know, when it comes to work.”

The columnist said later, according to a Nov. 26, 1995, article in the Chronicle, that the Soviet Union’s Sputnik satellite—launched on Oct. 4, 1957— must have been spinning around in his subconscious when he came up with the term.

In the early 1960s, the word “hippie” took on its second life, as an updated version of “beatnik.” Jonathan Lighter, the slang lexicographer, has this all-encompassing definition for the new sense:

“A usu. young, longhaired person who dresses unconventionally, holds various antiestablishment attitudes and beliefs, and typically advocates communal living, pacifist or radical politics, and the use of hallucinogenic drugs.” Lighter adds that the term is “usu. used disparagingly.”

The two earliest examples in Random House for this new sense of “hippie” are from books published in 1966:

“The poundage of LSD swallowed by college ‘hippies’ is … a minuscule amount.” (From LSD on Campus, by Warren Young and Joseph Hixson.)

“Ah, the Harvard hippie. I knew him well. Ready to prove that Kennedy and Dostoevsky and Holden Caulfield have not lived in vain. He defies his parents by sleeping with his girl friend, his neighbors by letting his hair grow, and his university by smoking pot.” (From 1 in 7: Drugs on Campus, by Richard Goldstein.)

We’ve found quite a few earlier examples in which it’s unclear whether “hippie” is being used in the old sense or the new.

For example Earl Wilson wrote in his syndicated “It Happened Last Night” column on June 8, 1960, that “Bobby Darin, a hippie from New York City, Tonsil No. 1, in the ‘New Noise’ sweeping America, completely conquered all the New York hippies.”

However, Dorthy Kilgallen does appear to use the term in the new way in her syndicated “Voice of Broadway” column on June 11, 1963: “New York hippies have a new kick—baking marijuana in cookies.”

And the following year the entertainer Jean Shepherd used it to mean someone with an unconventional spirit. Here he’s quoted in the Dec. 6, 1964, issue of the New York Times, commenting on his audience at the Limelight coffee house in Greenwich Village:

“You find the squarest people with beards and carrying guitars. And the little old grandmother from Circleville can really be a hippie.”

The word “hippie” was clearly a work in progress during the first half of the ’60s. A perfect example was a Sept.10, 1964, article in the Village Voice, headlined “Baby Beatniks Spark Bar Boom on East Side,” in which the terms “hippie,” “beatnik,” and “hipster” seem to be used interchangeably.

Sorry we can’t be more certain about the beginnings of “hippie,” but this word for an unconventional person doesn’t seem to have a conventional origin. As more texts are digitized, though, we may learn more.

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