Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

Of Hipsters, Hippies, and Hepcats

In two recent articles, The New York Times has reported on culture wars involving "hipsters": locals in the Long Island town of Montauk are suffering from "hipster fatigue," while in Park Slope, Brooklyn, the hipsters are battling with new parents and their babies. All of this raises the question: where did the term hipster come from? Does it have something to do with hippies? And what about the even older term, hepcat?

The prominence of the "hipster" in current media depictions of youthful urbanites is undeniable, especially in New York. Hipster is usually a pejorative term, and the Times articles mention blogs that poke fun at the stereotype, like Diehipster.com and Stuff Hipsters Hate. Two years ago, Gawker decided that hipster was overused as a term of abuse and launched a contest to replace it. The winner, fauxhemian, hasn't caught on, while hipster continues riding high. But hipster wasn't always a slur: it used to describe a positive, desirable state of being hip (or hep): in the know, with it, up-to-date on the latest styles.

The origins of hip and hep are the subject of much dispute. Some have sought a West African etymology, from Wolof hipi or xippi, meaning "to open one's eyes." Oxford English Dictionary editor at large Jesse Sheidlower dismantled this idea in a 2004 piece for Slate. As Sheidlower writes, the notion that this word was brought over from Africa by slaves is an appealing one, but the evidence for such a trajectory is sorely lacking. In fact, there's no evidence at all for hip or hep meaning something like "informed about the latest trends" until the early 20th century. The earliest citation for hip in the Oxford English Dictionary is from 1904 ("At this rate it'll take about 629 shows to get us to Jersey City, are you hip?"), and the hep variant dates to 1908 ("What puzzles me is how you can find anybody left in the world who isn't hep"). [Update: Jonathon Green notes that his Green's Dictionary of Slang antedates hep to 1905, from Helen Green's At the Actors' Boarding House.]

The jazz scene of the late '30s and '40s brought hip-ness to the fore, and it was then that both hipsters and hepcats came on the scene. Bandleader Cab Calloway popularized the "jive" slang of the jazz musicians and their fans, starting with his 1938 publication, Cab Calloway's Cat-alogue: A 'Hepster's' Dictionary. The title is the first recorded use of hepster, and Calloway also defined hep cat for the first time: "A hep cat is a guy who knows what it's all about." After hepster came hipster, documented from 1941.

Hipster then got shortened to hippy or hippie in jazz circles. The pianist Harry Gibson was nicknamed "Harry the Hipster," and in a 1945 radio recording his fellow musician Stan Kenton can be heard calling Gibson "Hippy." There's a short audio clip here, capturing some patter between Kenton and Gibson at the beginning of a performance of the song "Down the Road A-Piece":

Gibson: Hey, hey... I said sad, man, not miserable!
Kenton: I'm way ahead of you, Hippy!
Gibson: Look out, Jack! Put it down! I think you got a good deal, MacNeill!

Kenton was simply using a diminutive form of Gibson's "Hipster" nickname as a vocative, but in later years hippy/hippie would take on a life of its own, originally among the Beat Generation of the 1950s. The first OED citation for hippie is from 1953 ("Man, I really get a bellyful of these would be hippies"). But when you hear hippie today, you don't think of beatniks but of the '60s counterculture that they presaged. In 1965, hippie began to be used by San Francisco journalists to describe the successors to the beatniks who were already flocking to the city's Haight-Ashbury district. When San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen started using hippie frequently in early 1967, it became a nationally (and internationally) recognized term.

As hippiedom waned in the 1970s, hippie itself turned into a term of derision. The earlier hipster made a comeback in the late '90s: the book What Was the Hipster?: A Sociological Investigation, pegs the rise of the new hipster subculture to 1999, in urban hotspots such as Manhattan's Lower East Side and Brooklyn's Williamsburg. These neo-bohemian enclaves began to be known for their hipster hangouts (bars, coffee shops, and indie rock clubs), as well as their fashion and facial hair.

By now, however, few would self-identify as hipsters, since the term inevitably evokes stereotypes of annoying self-entitlement and self-absorption, as the New York Times articles indicate. But as long as there are enough young people playing into these stereotypes in New York and elsewhere, I suspect that hipster will stick with us as a handy epithet.

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Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.