October 12, 2004

Trevor's Law of hip etymology

Newsweek recently printed an excerpt from John Leland's forthcoming book Hip: The History. Lelend traces the word hip back to Wolof verbs meaning "to see" or "to open ones eyes", following Clarence Major. Trevor at kaleboel is very skeptical, basing his objection less on any particular facts than on a general principle of historical linguistics. The principle in question strikes me as a plausible one, with a considerable range of potential applications. And I haven't seen it expressed elsewhere, so in keeping with the tradition for such things, I propose to name it after its author: Trevor's Law. The only trouble is, I'm not quite sure what the principle is.

Here's the background. First, Leland:

Clarence Major, in his study “Juba to Jive: A Dictionary of African-American Slang”, traces the origins of hip to the Wolof verb hepi (“to see”) or hipi (“to open one’s eyes”), and dates its usage in America to the 1700s. So from the linguistic start, hip is a term of enlightenment, cultivated by slaves from the West African nations of Senegal and coastal Gambia. The slaves also brought the Wolof dega (“to understand”), source of the colloquial dig, and jev (“to disparage or talk falsely”), the root of jive.

Now, Trevor (slightly abridged):

[M]y principal complaint is of the improbability of a word like hip emanating from seeing or looking, instead of, as I think is normal with such terminology, from f*cking. The OED service I was using with great pleasure has vanished, but I do think that such words are generally knicker-born (I am not aware of what gentlemen--or prison wardresses--wear these days), and in the following fashion:

  1. Cooler (woman, late C17-early C19: low, ex the cooling of passion and bodily temperature after sexual intercourse (Partridge)) → cool (impertinent, audacious, colloquial ca 1820-1880, then standard English (also Partridge)) → cool in the modern sense.
    1. Hip (lump of plastic contributing not inconsiderably to China's export earnings) → various sexually-tinted expressions involving the biological substitute for former (see Partridge) → hips, she is|was|were (anecdotal, mid-C20 sex trade, still used ... → hip (record company sales exec, tight trews, dandruff)).
    2. Hebben (Dutch, to have and to hold; b → ~p in many parts--just ask Barry, Scheveningen's finest drummer-florist ) → (Nieuw Amsterdam) → hep, in the (not so) modern sense.
    3. If you consider this bo!!ocks with bells on, try Cecil Adams' hypothesis; I am sceptical: his hypothesis is asexual, and thus floored (no seeling here, thank you, South Asian scholars).
  2. Dig (early C19: clobber successfully (Partridge), ie related to f*ck-type terms implying violence) → dig in the modern sense.

I'm afraid that the OED is no help with respect to the specific case in question: it gives the etymology of hip and hep as "origin unknown" and "of unknown origin", respectively, and the first citations are

1904 G. V. HOBART Jim Hickey i. 15 At this rate it'll take about 629 shows to get us to Jersey City, are you hip?

1908 Sat. Even. Post 5 Dec. 17/1 What puzzles me is how you can find anybody left in the world who isn't hep.

I don't own a copy of Clarence Major's Juba to Jive, so I don't know what evidence he cites for am 18th-century origin of "hip" or "hep" in the U.S., or for its connection to Wolof. I'll try to stop by the library at some point and check it out.

But what mainly interests me here is not the history of hip, but rather the nature of Trevor's Law. Trevor says that it's "normal" for "such terminology" to "emanate" from "f*cking". He restates his principle more directly, though more euphemistically, by saying that "such words are generally knicker-born".

I believe that I know what Trevor means by "emanate" and "knicker-born". And as for "normal" and "generally", that's just a question of what the domain of quantification is and what the statistics turn out to be. What's obscure to me is what he means by "such terminology" or "such words".

He could mean "slang in general" -- but that's clearly not true, though sexual metaphors are no doubt well represented in slang. He could mean "slang terms for positively evaluated characteristics of style" -- but that wouldn't cover dig, which he mentions along with hip and cool as examples of "such words". Is is "slang terms for in-group perception or evaluation"?

This could be a very popular Law, I'm sure. If I could only figure out what it is. Sorry to be so unhip, Trevor.


Posted by Mark Liberman at October 12, 2004 11:12 AM