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What is the history of the word ‘hip’?

James Brown was famously introduced by Lucas ‘Fats’ Gonder at the Apollo Theater in the early 1960s as ‘The Hardest Working Man in Show Business,’ an epithet that stuck with Brown for his entire life. It is a fitting term for the word hip–the hardest working word in the lexicon of American slang. For more than 110 years, hip has found a prominent place in our slang, reshaping and repurposing itself every few decades to carry itself forward, from the early twentieth century’s hip to today’s hipster movement.

Hep or hip

For years hep and hip were used interchangeably. Hep was recorded first, on 9 May 1903, in the Cincinnati Enquirer. The first recorded example of this sense of hip (meaning ‘very fashionable’) is found in George V. Hobart’s 1904 slang-rich short novel Jim Hickey: A Story of One-Night Stands: ‘Say Danny, at this rate it’ll take about 629 shows to get us to Jersey City, are you hip?’ A year earlier, cartoonist T.A. Dorgan had used the names ‘Joe Hip’ and ‘old man Hip,’ but the first full-blown hip would have to wait until 1904. The ‘aware’ sense of hip here quickly grew to include world-wise, sophisticated, and up-to-date with trends in music, fashion, and speech. It expanded to the adjectival hipped in 1920, and to a verb hip in 1932 meaning ‘to make aware.’

Hip may be a simple, three-letter word, but its etymology (when used in this way) is a mystery. It is a textbook example of lexical polygenesis; there are many unproven explanations for hip’s etymology. Some involve the body part (boots laced up to the hip, a wrestler having an opponent on his hip, a flask of liquor carried in the hip pocket, or the opium smoker reclined on the hip), or an apocryphal character named Hip or Hep (a Chicago saloon-keeper, a Cincinnati detective, a circus man), or the ploughman’s exhortation of ‘Hep!’ If any of the competing explanations rings the truest, it is probably the suggestion by Holloway and Vass in The African Heritage of American English that hip is derived from Senegalese slaves, for whom xipi in their native Wolof language meant ‘to have your eyes open, to be aware.’

Hepcats and hipsters

Hep gave way to hepcat, meaning a knowledgeable and fashionable jazz aficionado. In the September 1937 issue of Downbeat, a caption over a picture showing three male musicians and a female singer reads: ‘3 Hep Cats and a Hep Canary.’ If there is any ambiguity as to the compound status of this usage, the first unambiguous compound is found in the 13 March 1938 San Francisco Chronicle. It was not until 1940 that we saw hipcat, meaning the same thing.

This was also the case with hepster and hipsterhepster first appeared in the title of Cab Calloway’s Hepster’s Dictionary, punning no doubt on the rhyme with ‘Webster.’ While the dictionary contained an entry for hep cat, it did not have one for hepster, which suggests that Calloway was simply punning and not using a term then in common usage. Hipster would not appear until 1940, although it would soon outpace hepster in popularity. Both terms referred to a white fan of jazz, and usually of jazz played by black musicians.


Next came the early sense of hippie. In the 1950s, hippy or hippie took on a somewhat derisive tone when applied to those who posed as hipsters but were not in fact the genuine article. In A Jazz Lexicon, Robert Gold identifies this use as ‘current since 1945,’ although his first citation is from Night Light by Douglas Wallop (1953); had he looked a little harder, he would have seen it used in George Mandel’s 1952 Flee the Angry Strangers. This is the sense in which Shel Silverstein used hippie in Playboy in September 1960, ‘Then the hippies, they come on cool–they will let me make it if I dig to! Ha!!!!’ And it was in this sense that Orlons sang ‘Where do all the hippies meet?’ in their 1963 number-three Billboard hit ‘South Street’.

The first use of hippie in a new 1960s countercultural/flower child sense came in a series of articles on the evolving Haight-Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco by Michael Fallon which began running in the San Francisco Examiner on 5 September 1965. Still using beatnik in the headline, Fallon used hippies, heads, and beatniks interchangeably in the body of the article.


A tad over a decade later, hip showed up in hip-hop, referring to a subculture that originated in the black and Hispanic youth of America’s inner cities, especially in the South Bronx neighborhood of New York in the late 1970s. The word hip-hop, like many of its slang giant peers, has several claimed parents, but no solid evidence supporting any of the claims. Disco Fever club DJ Lovebug Starski, Afrika Bambaataa of the Universal Zulu Nation, Club 371’s DJ Hollywood, and Keith ‘Cowboy’ Wiggins of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five are all said to have coined the term hip-hop, but proof is scant. The earliest recorded usage found to date is from nine years after DJ Kool Herc began the experiments that produced the art form, in the 1979 song Rapper’s Delight, with ‘Said a hip hop the hibbit the hippidibby hip hip hoppa you don’t stop’. Out of the scat context, the earliest usage is from the 24 February 1979 New Pittsburgh Courier, which reported that D. J. Starksy was “responsible for the derivation of the ‘Hip-Hop.'”


Almost a century into its journey through American slang, hip had at least one more life up its sleeve in the form of the new hipster movement, referring to relatively affluent young Bohemians living in gentrifying neighborhoods. It is an opaque term, and one which is generally not used by anyone considered by others to be a hipster. Two profiles of Williamsburg, Brooklyn–ground zero of the contemporary hipster movement–appeared in 2000, and neither used the term hipster. The New York Times used the term bohemians while Time Out New York used the term ‘arty East Village types.’ By the time that Robert Lanham’s The Hipster Handbook was published in 2003, hipster had crept back into the lexicon.

All in all, hip has had a remarkable and unusual slang life. With a few notable exceptions, slang is ephemeral. While there are examples of words that have risen, fallen, and risen again (groovy, sweet, and tasty all come to mind), hip is unique in its ability to navigate 110 years, adding suffixes every few decades to emerge fresh and new. It has been a long and strange trip for hip, and there is nothing to suggest that there won’t be a new hip variant again soon.

A version of this blog post first appeared on the OxfordWords blog.

Image Credit: “Hipsters in Berlin” by Timo Luege. CC BY NC 2.0 via Flickr.

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