Hey, Wait A Minute

Crying Wolof

Does the word hip really hail from a West African language?

John Leland kicks off his entertaining new book, Hip: The History, with a seductive little linguistic anecdote. The word hip, he says, derives from the West African language Wolof, and was “cultivated by slaves” from West Africa. Leland goes on to use the etymology of the word as a framing device for part of his argument: Hip—the word and the concept—”was one of the tools Africans developed to negotiate an alien landscape, and one of the legacies they contributed to it.” Sounds fascinating, right?

There’s just one problem: The etymology is wrong.

The origin of hip (and its partner, hep; the words are related) is, unsatisfyingly, unknown. The term first appeared at the turn of the 20th century, and quickly became widespread. Its meaning at this early point was “aware; 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, that the modern senses—”sophisticated; currently fashionable; fully up-to-date”—arose. (These senses did arise among African-Americans.)

Hip’s etymology has been widely speculated upon; historians of slang have collected over a dozen possibilities, none of which is particularly plausible. Leland correctly dismisses as “dubious” a Depression-era source suggesting that the term hailed from the phrase to have one’s hip boots on, which meant “to be prepared.” Other unlikely origins: the phrase to be on the hip, which referred to the customary position for smoking opium; hep, two, three, four, a marching chant; and the name of an imagined Joe Hep, variously described as an infamous saloon-keeper or a skilled detective.

The idea—retailed prominently in Leland’s book, its flap copy, and almost every review of it I’ve seen—that hip came from Wolof, a language widely spoken in Senegal and The Gambia, was first advanced, tentatively, in the late 1960s by David Dalby, a scholar of West African languages. The word hipi, meaning “to open one’s eyes,” was the putative source; Dalby also suggested West African sources for the American slang words jive and dig. Over time, Dalby’s proposal was taken as fact by many people, particularly those who wanted to find African origins for English words. Even obvious problems with the etymology—such as the fact that Wolof does not generally use the letter “h”—were ignored. (The word in question is actually spelled xippi.)

Leland cites as his source Juba to Jive, a 1994 dictionary of black slang written by Clarence Major, which asserts that hip dates from the 1700s in American English. Major is a respected poet and critic, but his dictionary is widely regarded by linguists and lexicographers as poor—its etymologies baseless, its dates speculative at best—and no one has ever discovered a historical example proving his claim about hip. Leland does not mention more authoritative sources, such as the Oxford English Dictionary, in which the earliest example of hip dates from 1904. (I should note here that I currently edit the OED.)

When it comes to word origins, plenty of picturesque anecdotes get waved along without close scrutiny. (The Eskimos, I am sorry to report, do not have a particularly large number of words for snow.) And because the Wolof etymology dovetails neatly with existing cultural narratives about the coolness of African-Americans, Hip’s reviewers—opining for the New York Times and Washington Post, among othersgleefully swallow Leland’s story without checking it. In the Los Angeles Times, Herbert Gold (a truly hip man who wrote a memoir called Bohemia) even happily notes that Leland’s etymology “corrects the folklore” of the opium derivation. If a putative word origin confirms one’s prejudices—or is simply too good, or too quotable, to ignore—it will be repeated, and like other urban legends become hard to stamp out.

When I e-mailed Leland to ask about his sources, he said that he had consulted a variety of books, all of which supported the Wolof etymology. Some of the books he listed were written by reputable scholars, but even they simply parrot Dalby’s original assertion, with its misspellings intact. Still, Leland’s mistake illustrates how people—even those with scholarly inclinations and good intentions—can be weirdly lax about linguistic issues. Leland also wrote to me, “Of all the proposed etymologies I saw, the case for slave origins struck me as the strongest, earliest and most edifying.” But the case is strong only because it sounds right, and it is early only because it is said to be early, not because there’s any evidence for it.

The fact is, hip isn’t the only word in this book that Leland misattributes. He also asserts that many other words are of African origin, among them dig, banjo, honky, jive, juke, and jazz. Of these, only juke and banjo are likely to derive from African languages. The African etymology of jazz was fabricated by a New York press agent in 1917. And honky, also supposedly from Wolof, actually derives from an African-American pronunciation of Hunky, a disparaging term for a Hungarian laborer; its first recorded use as an insulting term for a white person is found only in the 1950s, considerably too late for African influence to be plausible. This linguistic sloppiness does no one any favors. The African-American contribution to American culture—and in particular the African-American linguistic contribution to American popular culture—is robust enough without reaching back to putative West African borrowings.

Aside from the linguistic flaws, Leland’s book is actually very good. He is an engaging writer and an excellent critic. And his argument doesn’t collapse just because he failed to get his etymological facts straight. But reading his book, I really wish he had.