Dear Straight Dope:
Over dim sum today my friend and colleague described a passage in A History of Morphine, that describes a supposed origin of the phrase "get hip to." According to the book, opium addicts in England used to smoke long pipes that would rest on their hips as they reclined, leaving calluses and, one would think, burn marks. Thus if you wanted to get into opium, or find out if someone else was, you asked if they were "hip." This seems way too ingenious to be true. Is it?
Too ingenious, too convoluted, and too silly. There is often a great deal of uncertainty in tracking word origins, since we only have the written record to go on, and a phrase may have been in common use long before anyone wrote it down–after all, one doesn’t use slang phrases in most writing, such as newspapers, certain columnists excepted.
However, there is pretty solid agreement that the word “hip” is a variant of “hep” meaning “wise to” or “informed.” During the 1930s, some of the big-bands of swing, like Benny Goodman’s and Count Basie’s, were called "hep," meaning the musicians and arrangers were “in the know.” A later phrase of similar meaning would be “in tune with.” Jazz devotees were called “hep-cats” although the term was not popular among the musicians themselves.
The origins of "hep" are murky. Cecil ran through a few possibilities in this column. William and Mary Morris say that the first appearances were from soldier slang of around 1900: “Hep, two, three, four” was the drillmaster’s cadence count. The troop that marched with the beat was in step, and thus “hep.” Brewer’s simply says that the origin of “hep” is unclear.
Regardless of its beginnings, “hep” was relatively short lived. By the end of the 40s, the jazz world changed. Bop gave way to cool jazz, the language changed, and the variant “hip” completely displaced “hep.” Norman Paris, radio and television bandleader, quipped that “Hep ain’t hip, Man. Hep is square–really the squarest. Hep’s been out for the longest time!”
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