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What’s the Origin of the Term Hipster?

hipster

Hipsters have become simultaneous objects of ridicule and desire, associated with the new and in vogue, and also with an absurd form of consumerism. Why do we call them hipsters, and how did this word, born of jazz music in the early 1930s, make the transition to describe young men in skinny pants and classes on how to properly sharpen a pencil?

The earliest uses of hipster are often mixed with a very similar word, the hepsterHepster began appearing in the late 1930s, and primarily referred to a person who is knowledgeable about or interested in jazz. Although the word was likely in spoken use before this, we can see it used in print as early as June 8, 1938, when Variety magazine published an article about Cab Calloway’s new book, which was referred to both as a Cat-ologue and a hepster’s dictionary.

Later that year an article in the New York Amsterdam News referred to “Cab Calloway’s Hipster’s dictionary,” although this was likely a typo, as the book in question did not have the word hipster in its title. By 1939 hipster was being used on its own, as seen in the African-American newspaper, The New York Age: “J. R. and G. G. at the party were coming on stronger than most hipsters…”

Part of the reason that hipster and hepster were interchangeable at the time is that they come from near-synonyms, hep and hip. Each of these words, which mean “in-the-know” or “knowledgeable,” were in use since the beginning of the 20th century (hep since 1907, and hip since 1904).

Oddly enough, there was another sense of hipster that predated all of this. The word was used in the early 1930s to describe a dancer (the hip portion of the word referenced the movement of a person’s hips, rather than their cultural acumen). Josephine Baker was referred to as “Harlem’s banana-shaking hipster” in the Baltimore Afro-American in 1932, and in 1935 this publication wrote of dancer Willa Mae Lane as a “pretty hipster.”

In 1957 Norman Mailer published “The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster,” an essay on the adoption of black culture by white people. Whether the popularity of this piece shifted the meaning of the word is open to debate, but at this time hipster begins to be used considerably more often. Some have speculated that hipster transitioned throughout the 1950s and 1960s to become hippie.

In any event, the hipster never really went away, although use of the word waned. But hipster then experienced a resurgence at the dawn of the millennium, and beginning in the 21st century has become a sort of shorthand for ostentatiously fashionable youths. It is not entirely clear why, once it became common to refer to the folk with creative facial hair as hipsters, the word took on such a negative meaning. It seems to be an immutable truth that each new generation finds their elders to be unbearably stodgy, and each older generation finds their successors to be unreasonably self-absorbed. Perhaps the connotations of hipster are just a convenient way of expressing this.

43 Comments

  1. Paulina -  October 4, 2016 - 3:22 pm

    Hipster joke: Why did the hipster burn his mouth on his coffee? Because he drank it before it was cool.

    Reply
  2. TREY GORDAN FISHMAN MCCONNELL -  September 16, 2016 - 7:03 am

    YEOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO

    Reply
    • TREY GORDAN FISHMAN MCCONNELL -  September 16, 2016 - 8:40 am

      IS PHISH THE GREATEST BAND OF ALL TIME?

      Reply
  3. De Anna -  September 9, 2016 - 6:29 pm

    AIDS

    Reply
    • TREY GORDAN FISHMAN MCCONNELL -  September 16, 2016 - 7:02 am

      IS PHISH HIPSTER?

      Reply
  4. Tatiana -  September 8, 2016 - 9:14 pm

    Hipster doesn’t relate as much as to how you dress. It is more about one’s preferences. Hipsters are people who were “in the know” before the rest of the crowd became band-wagoners. For example, someone who says, “I knew that band before they were cool” would be called a hipster.

    Reply
    • me -  November 19, 2016 - 8:42 pm

      hipster is who you are, not how you look. im emo and even though i do look a lot emo, ive always been emo even before my haircut or whatever. you can be hipster or emo without necessarily looking like it; what matters is your heart. same goes for punks, goths, whatever. its your soul that defines you, not the way you look.

      Reply
  5. Lee -  September 8, 2016 - 8:41 am

    There was a 2008 Russian movie called Стиляги (Stilyagi), that’s called “Hipsters” in English. It focuses on a group of youths in 1950s Moscow who are into western culture, much to the chagrin of Soviet authorities.

    Reply
  6. Querpp -  May 8, 2016 - 3:42 pm

    slackerbagging is eating chips without dip

    Reply
  7. twitster -  May 7, 2016 - 8:39 am

    If hip-height pants wearers were “hipsters” wouldn’t we call this generation “buttsters” ?

    Reply
    • Heidi -  September 13, 2016 - 9:27 pm

      That’s hilarious and fantastically observant!

      Reply
  8. Hempster -  May 6, 2016 - 12:43 pm

    Or there is my favorite and no it’s not a typo but the “Hempsters”. Hipsters that only smoke weed and talk about aligning there chakras.

    Reply
  9. Billy Mays -  May 5, 2016 - 1:40 pm

    Hi Billy Mays here and for a limited time offer i’ll be using hipster in all of my commercials.

    Reply
  10. Suh dude -  May 5, 2016 - 6:38 am

    ahahsuuuuh dude

    Reply
  11. rhoda -  December 13, 2015 - 12:31 am

    “Some have speculated that hipster transitioned throughout the 1950s and 1960s to become hippie.”

    My mum has a folder of photographs of her and her friends in the mid-1960s that she’d labelled ‘Hips.’ That would seem to back up that theory.

    Reply
  12. Sally -  December 3, 2015 - 6:23 pm

    Hipsters in the mid to late 1960′s were trousers that sat on your hips, usually flares and slightly before Bell Bottom Trousers and Loon Pants in the 1970′s.

    Reply
  13. Chris -  December 3, 2015 - 5:43 am

    Go and watch Nathan Barley for a crash course in why hipsters are now viewed negatively…

    Reply
    • Nathaniel -  September 14, 2016 - 9:54 am

      Well… man buns with the sides shaven. Skinny jeans, Weird cat shirts, Gluten free diets, the knowlage of things that are completely useless, pot heads, etc. At least that is the stereotype.

      Reply
  14. Meew -  December 2, 2015 - 9:53 am

    ….Here in my garage….

    Reply
  15. Anna -  December 1, 2015 - 10:31 am

    Stuffeat
    That’s my hipster term for sweet food I can nibble or chew on.
    I actually invented it when I was little and knew no English words whatsoever.
    Anyway, I’m still not sure whether the original is the Polish meaningless ‘stafit’ or ‘stuffeat’ that was simply everpresent in the back of my pre-English head.

    Reply
  16. serpirior the pokemon -  December 1, 2015 - 7:44 am

    cool now i know were the word comes from

    Reply
    • icequeenxoxo -  December 1, 2015 - 11:00 am

      lol

      Reply
      • lil'$$$$$$$$$$$$ -  December 3, 2015 - 11:06 am

        i like your user name

        Reply
  17. icequeenxoxo -  November 30, 2015 - 11:31 am

    wat sorry how do if i know if my friends are hipsters

    Reply
    • CoinToss -  February 22, 2016 - 8:44 am

      If they are hipsters, they’ll say things like “I play [INSERT VIDEO GAME HERE]. You’ve probably never heard of it.”

      Reply
      • Hitlers spawn -  September 9, 2016 - 11:00 am

        na man just say Ethan Brad berrie

        Reply
  18. Bobbie Graham -  November 23, 2015 - 9:22 pm

    New word and meaning

    Everstuff- this means everything.

    My husband’s best friend Robert Van Oster came up with this word and meaning.

    Reply
    • Anna -  December 1, 2015 - 10:34 am

      Would ‘everstuff’ rather refer to only the materialistic stuff?
      Because we already have ‘everything’ for these PLUS abstract things. It’s just the way I feel the meaning of ‘everstuff’. Like, “You sure you packed everstuff? I don’t want to buy yet another towel.”

      Reply
      • Dinky -  May 8, 2016 - 2:30 am

        just “stuff” is fine as it is – I got enough stuff. Thank You

        Reply
  19. pinkie pie -  November 20, 2015 - 4:05 pm

    im a hipster

    Reply
    • Burger with Ketchup -  November 30, 2015 - 5:45 am

      me too and im not mad besides my friends realized theyre hipsters too

      Reply
    • Billy_Bobkins -  December 2, 2015 - 4:12 pm

      First Rule of being a Hipster:
      Never admit that you are a hipster.

      Reply
      • TotallyNotAHipster -  May 10, 2016 - 6:47 pm

        That is so true

        Reply
      • Paulina -  October 4, 2016 - 3:19 pm

        Yeah, I think that being a hipster is the most hipsterless thing that you could ever been. In fact I always say jokingly to my cousin (she loves hipsters: I am everything a hipster wants to be. ;p

        Reply
  20. Darrick Steele -  November 19, 2015 - 5:25 am

    All right or alright?

    I want to add to your article that the way these two words are used can also have each it’s own meaning.
    All right: everything is well
    Alright: ok, or so-so

    Reply
    • wolf tamer tree guy -  November 23, 2015 - 7:31 pm

      you redundant piece of garbage

      Reply
      • Varina -  May 5, 2016 - 1:18 am

        Wow, Wolfie – hostile much? Bark less, wag more. People will like you better.

        Reply
        • Innocent Bystander -  May 9, 2016 - 6:47 am

          Best reply 2k16 Rate: 10/10 3 good punz 5 me

          Reply
        • Paulina -  October 4, 2016 - 3:20 pm

          Loved your reply. So polite ans so sharp.

          Reply
  21. David -  November 18, 2015 - 3:51 pm

    Thank you for the recent definition of the word ‘ hipster’

    it might help define the word if they heard an amusing question I once overheard my wife’s nephew pose to his brother…

    Question Why is it that hipsters never get burned?
    Answer Because they don’t touch anything that is not cool

    Reply
    • Varina -  May 5, 2016 - 1:18 am

      Love that! Perfect example!

      Reply
  22. K220 -  November 18, 2015 - 12:41 pm

    First!

    Reply
    • ausGeoff -  February 5, 2016 - 10:11 am

      … to make a total fool of yourself? You must be a hippie.

      Reply

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