Hipsters and Hepcats

Let’s talk about the entomology of the word “hipster”. Now, according to my jazz aficionado boyfriend hipster (he actually said hepster) is a term that came out of be-bop jazz culture in the early 1940s. Hipster, he claimed, was interchangeable with the term “hepcat” and has been grossly misused in the 21st century to refer to a subculture of Brooklynites who insist upon wearing thrift store clothing large heavy framed glasses and drinking copious amounts of PBR. Curious to see if he was right, and eager to complete my ENMC assignment, I plugged the words into our handy dandy N-gram viewer. Lo and behold he was not making this up- hipster and hepcat first appeared, according to both google and my boyfriend, in 1939. For obvious reasons I extended my search parameters up to 2008. And, after realizing that hepcat and hipster do not occur before the 1930s I went ahead and set the parameters to search books from 1935 to 2008.

But, what about those PBR chugging, chain smoking Brooklynites? Regardless of how the word came into being, I now associate hipster with that piece of Brooklyn subculture. Looking at the Google searches of the word reveals something rather intriguing: up through the 1970s hipster remains associated with jazz culture. The hipster is “painfully cultured and laid back.” The hipster is a “low-lying rebel.” The hipster is always referred to in the context of a musical subculture. But, in 2002, there’s a sudden shift in the referent. The signifier remains the same; the actual word “hipster” remains in use. But the culture to which the signifier refers becomes an urban class whose identity as hipster refers to a way of speaking (the top three Google books were all urban dictionaries) as opposed to a musical subculture.

Hepcat, the sister term to hipster, never really seemed to catch on. The word never moved beyond its nascent meaning; even in the more contemporary book searches hepcat remains a relic of 1940s bebop. The Ngram viewer shows the changing definition of the term hipster, but it cannot explain why one of two initially synonymous words retains its original function whilst the other shifts in use and meaning. This is an instance where the Ngram serves well as a preliminary research tool. It shows a pattern in the words’ use which is often the first step in research. The very nature of the Ngram means that for indepth research it will not be extraordinarily useful. It displays the pattern, can help refine and better visualize that pattern, but to understand the pattern the researcher must move beyond the initial data provided by the Ngram.

2 thoughts on “Hipsters and Hepcats”

  1. Very interesting. It seems like the NGram viewer’s results get a bit flakier once we get to the 2000s, and I’m pretty sure I didn’t hear much about “hipster” used in the PBR-swilling Brooklynite sense until the mid-aughts. I wonder what it would look like if we had an accurate graph of 2008-2014… I suspect there’d be a big upswing.

  2. It really interested me that the term hipster arose in the 1930’s. This semester I took a seminar of art of the beat generation, and for some reason in this class I miss understood that the term hipster arose during this period of the 1950’s. Although the most popular term to refer to them was beatnik, I thought that hipster, since it was also a term that was used to refer to them, was a term that also was born in the 1950’s.

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