Predating Charlie Parker

Origins of the word “hip”

Charlie Parker, post-hip hep cat.
  • Charlie Parker, post-hip hep cat.
  • Photograph by William P. Gottlieb

Dear H’ster:

One qualm I have, and it predates your column and the last however many years the term Hipster has been in the popular vernacular, is that 99.2% of our population do not know the genesis of the term they throw around so often. I’m wondering if you yourself know the answer. Please let me know if you do, and be sure not to skimp on any interesting anecdotes and what not that you may have (I always enjoy it). Here’s a hint (unfortunately, it may give away the answer): it predates Charlie Parker.

— Nick C., South Park

“Hipster” has so many origin stories it puts all the Spider-Man movies to shame. I’ll try to run through the most common ones and evaluate their credibility.

I have heard rumors of an unfinished Shakespeare play about three unemployed friends who drink too much one night and then each spends the bulk of the play trying to weasel out of paying the Elizabethan equivalent of a bar tab. (Spoiler alert: turns out they throw you in jail if you can’t pay, instead of merely banning you from Ye Olde Publick House.) Supposedly, it includes these lines:

Forsake, thou hipster, thy scorn and idle grandeur.

Can thou not slake thy thirst with common ale

and hold thy tongue for but one breath

when other men dare nothing to disdain?

I wouldn’t be surprised by this origin. I have heard Shakespeare invented something like 1700 words, including the verb “friend” way before Facebook thought it was cool. Don’t believe me? Go read Hamlet, Act I, Scene 5 and see if I’m deceiving you. Nevertheless, credibility negligible.

Some say the word “hip” derives from opium smokers, who would recline “one the hip” as they puffed opium pipes in San Francisco opium dens, long before hipsters ever got priced out of the Mission District. This plausible origin is not without flaws, chiefly: we don’t really see “hip” enter common usage in the U.S. until the 20th century is well underway, by which point heroin had already surpassed opium as the junkie’s drug of choice. Nevertheless, it rates “fair” on the credibility scale because it’s just random enough to be legit.

There is a widely debunked folk etymology about it being a loanword from a Senegalese language. Although African-Americans were absolutely the first people to throw the word “hip” around in then-unfashionable American neighborhoods, the word almost certainly did not come from Africa (although the same can’t be said for “banjo”). Credibility? Negative.

Making matters worse, we’re not sure if “hep” begat “hip,” or vice-versa; but one is probably an evolution of the other, and the best sources have “hep” actually showing up first, which, perhaps more than anything else, casts loads of doubt on all the possible explanations.

Most credible answer? It straight up arose as a slang term for “cool” or “fashionable” for no dang reason whatsoever. I hate that answer. Although it is probably more accurate than any other tantalizing bit of folk etymology, it’s dreadfully boring. In the long run, we are all much better off (a) speculating wildly over the answer; (c) confidently, and without solicitation, asserting we know the truth whenever anyone uses the term; and (b) arguing about it, at great length and peak volume, with our friends over drinks.

— DJ Stevens

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