Who’s afraid of the big bad Wolof?

I once read some complete nonsense by UCD prof Clarence Major, so I do kind of wonder whether he’s got any evidence for the claim (Prentiss RiddleMSNBC) that relates hip “to the Wolof verb hepi (‘to see’) or hipi (‘to open one’s eyes’)”. The Peace Corps Wolof-English dictionary (PDF) lists xippi, but they say that x is to be found “between h and k”, which I assume is the sound used as an alternative to “rhubarb” by well-disguised Anglo extras in low-budget action films set in North Africa, and which seems to me fairly distant from our h. I’d be interested to know from an expert whether (h+k/2) normally gets turned into h or k by predominantly English-speaking societies; I’d guess the latter, which wouldn’t help Prof Major one bit.

However, my principal complaint is of the improbability of a word like hip emanating from seeing or looking, instead of, as I think is normal with such terminology, from f*cking. The OED service I was using with great pleasure has vanished, but I do think that such words are generally knicker-born (I am not aware of what gentlemen–or prison wardresses–wear these days), and in the following fashion:

  1. Cooler (woman, late C17-early C19: low, ex the cooling of passion and bodily temperature after sexual intercourse (Partridge)) → cool (impertinent, audacious, colloquial ca 1820-1880, then standard English (also Partridge)) → cool in the modern sense.
    1. Hip (lump of plastic contributing not inconsiderably to China’s export earnings) → various sexually-tinted expressions involving the biological substitute for former (see Partridge) → hips, she is|was|were (anecdotal, mid-C20 sex trade, still used (“Commander Riker.””Computer, over-ride. Picard, Jean-Luc, authorization consider. Consider that he is a female. I and mean that she is hips. Hips back andfroth, making the skirt flair out around his knees.Picard was stroking“) → hip (record company sales exec, tight trews, dandruff)).
    2. Hebben (Dutch, to have and to hold; b → ~p in many parts–just ask Barry, Scheveningen’s finest drummer-florist ) → (Nieuw Amsterdam) → hep, in the (not so) modern sense.
    3. If you consider this bo!!ocks with bells on, try Cecil Adams’ hypothesis; I am sceptical: his hypothesis is asexual, and thus floored (no seeling here, thank you, South Asian scholars).
  2. Dig (early C19: clobber successfully (Partridge), ie related to f*ck-type terms implying violence) → dig in the modern sense.

One survival of the latter is my favourite Seamus Heaney poem, one not written by him, but which he quotes from his youth in several anthologies:

“Are your praties dry,
And are they fit for digging?”
“Put in your spade and try,”
Said dirty-faced McGuigan.

In summary: while I think Clarence Major has made this one up, I would be the last to deny the eternal influence of Wolof on Western language and literature. The Wolof word for ten (PDF) (link corrected thanks to PR) may, for example, explain the enduring popularity of Bo Derek in the Senegal. Go on, look it up. I’ll bet Professor Major hasn’t.

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  1. I think you’ve got an empty “” in that last link daring us to look up Wolof for ten. I guess you meant it to point back to the Peace Corps dictionary. At any rate the punch line is in there if you dig for it.

    I had never heard of C Major before this and have no idea of how credible his claims are. I know there’s been some shaky scholarship on both sides of the tug-of-war between Afro- and Eurocentric schools of thought on the etymology of American slang, so if he is as wrong as you suggest he wouldn’t be the first.

    My hunch is that there’s just not enough historical data from the speech communities most pertinent to these questions and so the field will always be fraught with speculation.

    Speaking of speculation, if (h+k)/2 is anything like Hebrew or Yiddish /kh/ or /ch/, then I think it could enter English as either h or k. Consider the name Chaim, which in English became Hyman or Hymie. But the same root in the one Hebrew word every Gentile knows is usually rendered with a k.

  2. You’re righter than right, and the lack of evidence of any kind makes me regret the lack of a discipline called creative etymology, which would not tell us anything useful about the past but would be fine training for citizens of the future.

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