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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.

Blog Post #1: Social Identification and Its Bearing

When examining societies, noting how their people identify can lend insight on values.  A particularly significant form of identification is that of group vs. individual.  A main difference between these two categories lies in their spreads of ideals.  If everyone identifies themselves as individuals, a greater variety of values is implied, but also a greater potential for conflict when the society is ruled by weaker majorities.  However, while group identification leads to higher levels of agreement, it can also magnify conflicts when different groups interact.

Since research on the OED yielded noun and verb variants of “group” and noun and adjective variants of “individual”, the Ngram study was conducted using part-of-speech tags to ensure that only the usages related to personal identification were included.  The period of 1800 – 2000 was examined.

ENMC 3600 Short Blog Post #1, Picture 1

Before the 20th century, the two terms were used roughly equally, the usage of “individual” surpassing that of “group” at the beginning of the period.  However, the 1900s saw the mass increase in the relative use of “group”.  This could perhaps be linked to the acceleration of industry and the formation of businesses, groups in which various individual talents condensed under common ideals to reap profits.  A wildcard search of “group” yields “group of” as the context in which the word is, by far, most frequently used.

ENMC 3600 Short Blog Post #1, Picture 2

The word that generally comes after this phrase would probably be an occupation or some other class with which all members of the group associate, such as “group of bankers” or “group of scientists”. The rise in this phrase’s usage during the 1900s supports the idea that it is connected to the industrial era.

But has this heightened identification with groups led, on the broad scale, to greater compatibility, or greater dissent?  To try and find out, I plotted “cooperation” against “competition”.

ENMC 3600 Short Blog Post #1, Picture 3

Both words saw a marked increase in usage during the industrial 1900s, with a slight divergence after 1980, when “cooperation” began to dip but “competition” continued to rise.  This indicates that while the predominating group identification converges values, making goals perhaps more obtainable, it also creates a greater divide between values of entities than did individual identification.

Being able to separate usages of words with the part-of-speech and wildcard tools increases the value of Ngram as a device with which we can measure social changes.  However, Ngram measures just that: changes.  Conclusions are not made as to why these changes have occurred, leaving human speculation to accomplish what is perhaps too massive a part of the task.  Also, while Google Books is useful in seeing particular instances in which words/phrases were used, it is not adequately filtered, minimizing any aid in making claims based on Ngram.