Dear Cecil: What is the origin of the expression “hip hip hurrah”? According to one book I’ve read, it derives from an abbreviation of the Latin Hierusylema Est Perdita, “Jerusalem is destroyed.” Apparently, medieval antisemites yelled “Hep! Hep!” as they exiled or executed innocent Jews. Can this be true? Can modern expressions such as hip, hipster, hippie, and hip-hop have such an odious etymology? Say it ain’t so. Name withheld, Washington, D.C.
You’re not going to believe it, but there may be a germ of truth to this bizarre story.
Hip, hippie, hipster, and presumably hip-hop all derive from hep (meaning hip, of course), which dates from the turn of the century. There are several theories where hep came from:
(1) From the marching cadence “hep, two, three, four.” If you were hep, you were in step with what was happening.
(2) From Joe Hep, who ran a low-life saloon in Chicago in the 1890s. (You may recall our discussion of another 1890s Chicago saloonkeeper who allegedly lent his name to the language, Mickey Finn. 1890s Chicago saloonkeepers were obviously quite a crew.) Hep liked to hover around the local hoods while they plotted their dirty deeds and fancied himself in the know. His name was originally used ironically to refer to someone who thought he knew what was going on but didn’t. The ironic sense was soon lost and to get Joe to or to get hep to simply meant to get the straight dope, so to speak. (Source: D.W. Maurer, American Speech, 1941.)
(3) According to a 1914 slang dictionary, “from the name of a fabulous detective who operated in Cincinnati.”
Of the three explanations, #1 is probably the least absurd. Hep (or hup or hip) has long been a multipurpose exclamation. In addition to being a cadence counter it was a traditional cry used by teamsters and herders to rouse animals. Hip was used to mean something on the order of “yo” or “hey” in the 18th century, and folks obviously thought it made a nice kickoff for hip hip hurrah.
Now we get to the bizarre part. Antisemitic rioters in Europe in the 19th century often shouted “Hep! Hep!” while on the prowl for Jews. Mob harrassment of Jews in Hamburg, Frankfurt, and other German cities in 1819, in fact, became known as the “Hep! Hep!” riots.
The origin of the expression is unclear. Some claim it derived from Hierusylema (also spelled Hierosolyma) Est Perdita. This theory obliges us to believe that a significant fraction of the rioters were students of Latin. Others say it came from the German habe, in this context apparently meaning “give.” But some believe it was nothing more than the traditional herdsmen’s cry, perhaps used because the rioters thought Jews ought to be rounded up like animals.
Does this mean we owe hip, hippie, hip hip hurrah and the rest to the howling of a bunch of Jew baiters? Not necessarily. Literary citations of hip hip hurrah in clearly innocent contexts date from 1818, the year before the “Hep! Hep!” riots. (I’ve seen nothing to convince me “Hep! Hep!” was used in the middle ages.) The most plausible explanation is that hip hip hurrah and “Hep! Hep!” simply have a common source, the herder’s cry. Still, it’s something to think about next time you’re about to give someone three cheers.
Send questions to Cecil via email@example.com.