“Hip” and the Metaphysical Mysteries of the Origins of Modern Words
Every year the world not only loses words but whole languages. That’s right, entire vocabularies, poetic expressions, mystical ideas, medicinal knowledge, songs, and legends. Modernity keeps marching on, and so, does language. Evolution takes its course.
Writers, however, are wordsmiths. We love words, we love how they sound and feel in the mouth, we love the way they look on the page, we love to discover new ones and use them. Like musicians who love to hear new songs or old songs or learn from other instruments or other cultures, we writers live for poetry of words.
I’ve been reading the back of my dictionary lately, the place that gives the roots of English and it’s Indo-European origins. Their etymology or their stories fascinate me. It’s like archaeology. You look there at the end of the definition, see the root, look it up, and a whole history opens out. Like the word, focus, which means a point where light or radiation converge or where they appear to converge. And you can go down and read that it means many things, in optics, disease, geology, etc, but at the bottom, my eyes “focus” in on the derivation from Latin “hearth.” In other words, this word comes from people seeing light in a fireplace in their homes or huts or wherever it first came from. Your poetic mind can go a lot of places with this.
Here’s another, in our era of terrorism (something we think is new, maybe to us in America, although guess what the Apaches were called or any number of Indian people? Terrorizers, villains, assassins, barbarians, etc.) What were the Apache doing? Protecting their land. But look at the word assassin, for example, this comes from a group of Arabic people who followed a certain mystical Sheik in ancient Persia who promoted the use of hashish to excite and empower warriors to kill enemies (Christian Crusaders or other enemies) in name of their mystical leader. The assassin is the word for hashish user in Arabic. Hmm. Does this help us understand anything of our times?
Finally, my favorite—“Hip” or as it’s been spelled “hep.” We all think we know what this means, right? Where did it come from, though? Hip-pies? Hepcats? Cool dudes? Well, it comes originally from Senegal, West Africa.
I remember seeing it first in a Wolof dictionary while in the Peace Corps, and thinking Is this word the word I think it is? I’d already learned about “dig” (to understand or comprehend) from the Wolof I lived with. “Mangi deg ko.” (I understand it.) But “hip” or “hepkat”? Yes. Here’s what clued me in. In Wolof, a farmer is a “mbaykat” (one who farms), a teacher,”janglekat” (one who teaches). You see the suffix is added to the verb to indicate one who is an expert at something. So . . . a “hepkat” is what? Those wise Wolofs, whose language shares roots with the Ancient Egyptians, released into the world of words an expression that doesn’t have to do with how one acts or appears (the common connotation) but it goes deeper than that, for them, “hep” is “to see clearly,” and thus the “hepkat” is “one who sees the world clearly.”