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Hip, like cool, does not refer to one specific quality. What is considered hip is continuously changing. The term hip is recorded in African American Vernacular English (AAVE) in the early 1900s, derived from the earlier form hep. In the 1930s and 1940s, it had become a common slang term, particularly in the African-American dominated jazz scene. Despite research and speculation by both amateur and professional etymologists, the previous origins of the term hip and hep are disputed. Many etymologists believe that the terms hip, hep and hepcat derive from the west African Wolof language word hepicat, which means "one who has his eyes open". Some etymologists reject this, however, tracing the origin of this putative etymology to David Dalby, a scholar of African Languages who tentatively suggested the idea in the 1960s, and some have even adopted the denigration "to cry Wolof" as a general dismissal or belittlement of etymologies they believe to be based on "superficial similarities" rather than documented attribution.
Alternative theories trace the word's origins to those who used opium recreationally in the 19th century. Opium smokers commonly consumed the drug lying on their sides, or on the hip, but this etymology is rejected by Sheidlower. Because opium smoking was a practice of socially influential trend-setting individuals, the cachet it enjoyed led to the circulation of the term hip by way of a kind of synecdoche. Another explanation was that users would develop a sore on their hips from lying motionless on it. Thus to "have the hip" was to be an initiate.
Early currency of the term (as the past participle hipped, meaning informed), is documented in the 1914 novel The Auction Block by Rex Beach:
- "His collection of Napoleana is the finest in this country; he is an authority on French history of that period - in fact, he's as nearly hipped on the subject as a man of his powers can be considered hipped on anything"
In 1947, Harry "The Hipster" Gibson wrote the song "It Ain't Hep" about the switch from hep to hip':'
Hey you know there's a lot of talk going around about this hip and hep jive. Lots of people are going around saying "hip." Lots of squares are coming out with "hep." Well the hipster is here to inform you what the jive is all about.
The jive is hip, don't say hep
That's a slip of the lip, let me give you a tip
Don't you ever say hep it ain't hip, NO IT AIN'T
It ain't hip to be loud and wrong
Just because you're feeling strong
You try too hard to make a hit
And every time you do you tip your mitt
It ain't hip to blow your top
The only thing you say is mop, mop, mop
Keep cool fool, like a fish in the pool
That's the golden rule at the Hipster school
You find yourself talking too much
Then you know you're off the track
That's the stuff you got to watch
Everybody wants to get into the act
It ain't hip to think you're "in there"
Just because of the zooty suit you wear
You can laugh and shout but you better watch out
Cause you don't know what it's all about, man
Man you ain't hip if you don't get hip to this hip and hep jive
Now get it now, look out
Man get hip with the hipster, YEAH! Got to do it!
be hip not hep, coz hep is not hip
so just be hip and pray you dont slip!
See also 
- Hip hop
- Cool (aesthetic)
- Hippie (etymology)
- Hipster (1940s subculture)
- Hipster (contemporary subculture)
- Square (slang)
- Holloway, Joseph E. The Impact of African Languages on American English.[dead link] Retrieved on 2006.10.05.
- Sheidlower, Jesse (2004-12-08), Crying Wolof: Does the word hip really hail from a West African language?, Slate Magazine, retrieved 2007-05-07.
- e.g. Grant Barrett, "Humdinger of a Bad Irish Scholar", in "The Lexicographer's Rules", 2007.11.09
- Rex Beach, (1914) The Auction Block, New York: A. L. Burt, p.91-92.
- Crying Wolof: Does the word hip really hail from a West African language? by Jesse Sheidlower at Slate
- "Hip Song (It Does Not Pay to be Hip)", lyrics of Shel Silverstein song recorded by Chad Mitchell Trio on 1964 album Reflecting