This week’s word: “hep-cat”

"I am hep?" probably not ...

Behold! This week’s word continues my recent series (that sounds quite serious, doesn’t it? to have a series, I mean) on slang; you can read it below, or look on pg. 16 on the left-hand side of the version posted on The Cambridge Student‘s site. A quick note though: “hippy” and “hipster” are cousins of “hep,” just in case you were wondering (now that you know, you are “hep,” ha …):

“Since we have been on such a slangy roll in this column, I thought we ought to continue it this week with “hip,” or, rather, “hepcat.” I must thank my friends James and Erica for suggesting it, in Grantchester, of all places.

By “hip” as an adjective, what is really meant is “hep,” a classic piece of mysterious American slang that has its roots in jazz (just like “cool”), when to “be hep” is to be “well-informed, knowledgeable, ‘wise to’, up-to-date [or] smart,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary (or OED).

Hence a “hip-cat,” or a “hep-cat,” is “in the know” as an avid aficionado of jazz, and all its hep derivatives, including swing. It appears in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s (1896-1940) posthumously published novel (in 1941), The Love of the Last Tycoon, with the line, “Suddenly they were at work again – taking up this new theme in turn like hepcats in a swing band and going to town with it.”

A “cool-cat,” incidentally, is much the same thing, defined as “an admirably fashionable or stylish person,” a fan of jazz and swing, says the OED. Now, how cats become cool, and learned to dance, is another matter entirely.

But the fact remains that cats and cool and dancing, along with dancing cool cats, became synonymous in the swing scene in early 20th-century America, so much so that Louie Armstrong could declare in 1932 that “All the cats were there,” and a May 23, 1942 issue of the Chicago Defender could say that “Perry Givens played a cool cat at the May dance Friday,” two of the earliest attributed examples of “cool-cat.”

As far as hep-cats are concerned, in 1938, the academic journal American Speech defined the word as a “guy who knows what it’s [the swing music is] all about.” As related by the OED, a 1940 issue of the same journal contains this anecdotal bit of speculation: “‘Tis said that back in the 1890s Joe Hep ran a saloon in Chicago… Although he never quite understood what was going on, he thought he did… Hence his name entered the argot as an ironic appellation for anyone who thought he knew but didn’t. The ironic sense has now largely disappeared … in … to ‘get hep to.’”

Your etymological columnist thinks that explanation is more than a little spurious, but it is interesting, and helps to illustrate how such theories make a sort of sense, even when nonsensical.  Technically, however, “hep” proper first showed up in written English in the Dec. 5, 1908 edition of The Saturday Evening Post, with the line, “What puzzles me is how you can find anybody left in the world who isn’t hep.”

Yes, that is most puzzling indeed. I hope you enjoyed that hep slang, and if you have any word-related queries, suggestions, tips, hints or etymological thoughts, please write to willswords@tcs.cam.ac.uk. Until next time, take care!”

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