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Dissecting the verb “hitchhike”

It is hard to believe how recent the verb hike is. Slightly more than a hundred years ago, The Century Dictionary (CD) found a slot for hike only in the supplement, and this is what we read there: “Also hyke; a widely used dialect word, parallel to hick, recently emerging into some colloquial use; prob[ably] orig[nally] an imitative word, parallel to hit, expressing a quick stroke or motion.” As “parallel” to it the CD mentions East Frisian [actually, Low German] hikken “thrust, push, punch,” and the reference is given to hick and hit. Hick “to hop, spring”, another regional word, we discover, is probably a variant of hip “to hop,” which, too, is regional and obsolete. With hit there are no problems: it is a borrowing from Scandinavian (Old Icelandic hitta and so forth), except that its origin in Scandinavian (Old Norse) is, alas, unknown. In 1907, the noted American etymologist Francis Asbury Wood called hike “a quick or sudden movement” slang.

The OED also included hike only in the supplement. The entry contained citations going back all the way to 1809, and, what is important, among the senses we find “to walk laboriously; tramp,” in recent use “to walk for pleasure”; then all the now familiar senses are listed.  With regard to etymology, we are invited to compare hoick “to lift up, often with a jerk,” said to be perhaps originally a local variant of hike. This derivation is probable, because the pronunciation of oi for i is widely known, and Standard English owes several well-established words to it, for example, boil and groin. Thus, we have hike, hoik, hick, and hit. The members of the trio hike ~ hoik ~ hick may well be cognates, but hit, with its final t, looks a bit suspicious. Besides, the word parallel in the CD raises questions. Does it mean “related to” or “resembling”? Dictionaries are fond of such evasive formulations.

This is the famous Alfred (“Hitch”) Hitchcock. Image credit: Alfred Hitchcock NYWTS byLibrary of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The plot thickens once we invite Walter W. Skeat as an authority. In his lifetime, the “concise” version of his great etymological dictionary appeared in 1911, one year before his death. Hike is not there, but it turns up in the entry hitch, which is a piece of good luck, because we are most interested in the origin of hitchhike. Skeat compares hitch with Lowland Scotch hatch and hotch and then, without explaining the progress of his thought, adds “provincial English” hike “to toss” and hikey “a swing.” Finally, he notes that hook is not related to this group. It should not come as a surprise that Skeat compared hitch and hike. Although hitch turned up only in Middle English, if it existed earlier, it may have sounded as hickan or hyckan.

Ernest Weekley, the author of the only original one-volume English etymological dictionary of the post-Skeat era,  observed that, if in the group hitch ~ hatch ~ hotch the “main” verb was hotch, it could go back to French hocher “to shake,” known to English speakers from hotchpotch (or hodgepodge), a word the French  borrowed from Middle Dutch. Be that as it may, we witness a typical case of elementary, or primitive, word formation, which I have discussed in this blog more than once, first in connection with the origin of butterfly (see the post for May 21, 2007). Such monosyllabic verbs as dig, hit, hitch, kick, pick, peck, and put cannot be called sound-imitative (unlike grunt, bark, caw, meow, and so forth), but they have been aptly called symbolic.

People produce them almost instinctively. Hence the impression that such words come from nowhere. They often look alike in unrelated languages, so that, while dealing with them, the idea of cognates becomes vague, almost illusory. Old English had the verb hīgian “to strive, pant” (predictably, of unknown origin), the etymon of the obsolete Modern Engl. hie “to hurry, move quickly” (that is, “to push one’s way forward”?), and in the Westphalia dialect of German hick-hick “cheese worm” (a pushy creature?) has been attested. We may have a hacking cough, and we hiccup when we have a kick (!) in the throat or a catch in the voice: all such words render the same strong or spasmodic effort familiar from hitch and hit. That is why ingenious hypotheses of the origin of hike inspire little confidence. For example, it has been suggested that hike is a blend of hie and (wal)k—a most improbable idea, even though its author was Ferdinand Holthausen, a distinguished philologist. Those fond of etymological curiosities may also look up hit in Horne Tooke’s Diversions of Purley. Tooke derived numerous words from past participles. He treated hit in the same preposterous way.

We certainly prefer a hitchhiker to a hit man, even if hit and hitch are related. Image credit (top to bottom): Hitchhiker at city limits of Waco, Texas by Library of Congress. Public Domain via Picryl/ Hitman Launches March 11 with Three Locations by BagoGames. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology has no suggestions about the origin of hike; it only states that the verb is of dialectal origin. However, a dialectal or slang word also has a source. Hit ~ hitch ~ hike, hitch ~ hatch ~ hotch are typical examples of sound complexes people coin to make clear the idea of striking, jerking, and the like. It does not seem unreasonable to explain hit, hitch, hike and the rest as symbolic and feel satisfied. Such verbs and even nouns have existed forever. Yet we tend to treat old words of this type with undue reverence. For example, in Gothic, a Germanic language, recorded in the fourth century, haiftsts “fight, quarrel” turned up. Its origin is, predictably, unknown. Francis A. Wood suggested that haifsts might belong with hoist, hike, hick “to hop,” and a few others. This etymology does not look fully convincing, but it is not indefensible.

Considering how many examples of hike Joseph Wright gives in his English Dialect Dictionary, we may be certain that this verb never disappeared from British dialects. It must have been brought by the colonists to the New World and stayed dormant there for a long time. How and why it suddenly surfaced, became universally known and even respectable remains unclear. Around 1870, it was American college slang for “to move vigorously” (“You’ve got to hike around, and fling some style inter your victuals”). When hike reached the general public, it had the status of an Americanism, but, like numerous other so-called Americanisms, it was coined in England. In the street argot of British tramps, hike flourished long before it was noticed by the educated part of the world.

In 1930, there was a brief exchange about the verb hike in Notes and Queries. A correspondent from Kent wrote: “This is still used hereabouts, meaning to set a dog to work in a hedge. It is equivalent to ‘hie in’ [!].” It was also suggested that probably another form of hike “is the ‘hoick over’, when hounds are pushed on over a woodland ride, or a low fence, or encouraged to draw a cover.” There is a good deal of historical and etymological justice in the fact that someone in the second decade of the twentieth century coined the verb hitchhike and that it conquered the world. In principle, hitchhike is a tautological compound, with both elements meaning the same, as in pathway (compare the post for October 7, 2009 and numerous tautological phrases of the first and foremost, kith and kin, and safe and sound type). Hike might have been little known, but if one hikes with hitching, the effect is guaranteed. People realized the symbolic strength of the coinage, and, as we can see, the word has come to stay.

Featured Image Credit: Pickup Hitchiker Auto Stop Take Fight by fxxu. Public Domain via Pexels.

Recent Comments

  1. Constantinos Ragazas

    Anatoly, in your post last week you wrote…

    “I have not looked for the origin of Modern Greek grassidi “grass,” but this word did not occur in the Classical period.”

    There is only one Greek language not two! That has been evolving and continuously spoken since ancient times. With minimal foreign influence unrecognized as being foreign.

    Modern Greek is much closer to Classical Greek than Modern English is to Old English!!!

    You write, “the [ancient] Greek for “grass” was póa; its rather general synonym (“verdure”) was khlōe”.

    Greek is known to have several words for the same or similar thinks. The Greek word “khlōe” that you allude to is the “green” pigment (“chlorophyll”) found in all plants. By your reasoning, “trees” (being “green”) should be called “grass” too!

    Here is another Greek word for grass, “horto”. But these Greek words don’t have the sense of ‘place, area, field’. As “grassidi” does.

    Though you may not have found the word “grassidi” written in Classical Greek, its roots can be found. The root “grao” (eat, graze) is attested in ancient Greek. While “idi” is a common suffix to signify “field, place, area”.

    It is self-evident that if a word in a language is composed of other words in the same language, and if the meaning of that word is the composite meanings of these words, then the word is of that language.

    “So I suspect that grassidi is a late borrowing from some Germanic language”.

    Wrong! See my comments above! Unless all spoken words are also presumed and expected to be found written in Classical Greek, we can stipulate the origin of “grassidi” is Greek. For the reasons I give above. Its roots are Greek and it makes best sense in Greek.


  2. Constantinos Ragazas

    You write,

    “This word [“sparrow”] has been investigated very well, among other reasons because it occurs in Gothic ”


    “It  [“sparrow”] was not a compound and did not mean “seed-picker” but rather “hopper” (though this is not cetin [?]). ”

    That “sparrow” is written in Gothic tells us only that spoken “sparrow” predates Gothic. Likely far back, since a word for this bird is fundamental.

    That “sparrow” is well investigated and settled tells us more about academic single-mindedness than the origin of this word.

    The Greek “sporgiti” is a composite of the Greek “spor”(seed) + “giti”(earth seeking). Which attests to the defining characteristic of these birds.

    The question, however, of whether the English “sparrow” derives from the Greek “sporgiti” is a legitimate one.

    I argue that it does. First by the strong similarity in the phonetics of these two words. And second because, more than any other derivation claimed, the meaning of “sporgiti” (which names these birds in Greek) most closely describes these birds. It makes most sense. Certainly more than Germanic “spring” or “hopper”. Since all birds “spring” and “hop” (including cats and dogs)!

    Further, the argument of lost syllables from Greek “sporgiti” to English “sparrow” is spurious. Greek is notoriously polysyllabic. While common ordinary English words are less syllabic. Many common words going from Greek to English often lose some syllables making the transition. Especially grammatical endings.

    I can give many examples of that. Here are some that you may have never considered. English “tree” from Greek “dentro”. Or English “chair” from Greek “karekla”. Or “cottage” from Greek “kotetsi” Or “path” from Greek “monopati”. The ‘true meaning’ (the ‘etymology’) of each of these words make clear and convincing sense only in Greek.

    But the more pertinent question is “how this can be”? In the past you argued for a purported common Proto-Indo-European root. But this speculation just does not resolve the issue.

    Since “sporgiti” clearly originates in Greek. It is Greek. Its roots “spor”+”giti” are Greek. It makes sense in Greek. It describes the defining characteristic of such birds. And so it is not derived from any (theoretical) PIE.

    Though just a few years back “how this can be” was an unsolved enigma, modern ancient DNA studies now provide the objective scientific explanation.

    See this study, for example:

    “Early farmers from across Europe directly descended from Neolithic Aegeans”


    So now we know how Greek roots found their way to modern European languages, especially English. Some scholars are also now discovering many place-names of West UK islands make more sense in Greek than in any other language.

    Now we know why!


  3. Yves Rehbein

    “hook” would at least explain “hooker” as a “hiker”, which makes sense in various ways (we say in German *auf den Strich gehen* “to walk the line”, apparently the lines that are road marking). Whereas I have difficulty imagining “someone who get’s someone hooked up”, “fishing for a catch” or the like, but *to hook up* might now make it them seem like an obvious case. The closest comparison to that in German might be “einhaken”, describing the way couples walk with interlocked arms, but without the figurative use that “to go (out) with someone” (“willst du mit mir gehen?”) has.

  4. Stephen Goranson

    There may well be many early uses of “hitch-hike” that are tautological. But [American] Dialect Notes vol. 5 part 10 (1927) p. 450 gives “hitch-hiking, v. n. Begging rides from passing automobiles, and walking between lifts. [General slang.]” In my experience of hitch-hiking, years ago, the latter was often the way it happened. “Hitch a ride” sounds more natural to me than “hike a ride.”

  5. Stephen Goranson

    There may well be many early uses of “hitch-hike” that are tautological. But [American] Dialect Notes vol. 5 part 10 (1927) p. 450 gives “hitch-hiking, v. n. Begging rides from passing automobiles, and walking between lifts. [General slang.]” In my experience of hitch-hiking, years ago, the latter was often the way it happened. “Hitch a ride” sounds more natural to me than “hike a ride.”

  6. Todd

    I found in an old Virginia survey from the 1600’s an area called “Bikers”, which seemed to correspond to a place where horseracing took place. I never saw the original document and it is possible the cursive said something else. Or maybe it did actually say bikers and meant something pretty normal. It made me question if ‘bike’ is a linear product of bicycle as every etymology seems to suggest. Any chance the -ike’s are related, like a hitchhike on bike down a turnpike?

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