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Crying Wolof

by Jesse Sheidlower


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.)…


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