More on Wolof "hip"

Thu Dec 9 17:19:14 UTC 2004

        Excellent article, Jesse.  I took a look at the Slate reader comments, which on Slate are called the Fray.  While most of them have little of value to contribute, I thought that two of them, from speakers of Wolof, were particularly useful, and I reproduce them below.  The first one has some particularly useful information about Wolof, and the second, while not as insightful, has some interesting speculations concerning other possible derivations.  Jesse has already responded to the point about Wolof orthography, but these posters have further information concerning actual Wolof pronunciations.

John Baker

Subject: Crying Wolof
From: raffi73
Date: Dec 9 2004 3:53AM

This Wolof speaker would like to correct something in Jesse Sheidlower's article. I'm not contesting the central point of the article and I agree that the Wolof origins of hip are more than dubious.

But Sheidlower wrote "the word in question is actually spelled Xippi", which doesn't make much sense. Wolof is essentially an oral language. It has started being written in the 20th century, but whatever spelling you see is just a transliteration. The "X" in Xippi is pronounced like a Spanish Jota, as in Juan. The word can also be spelled "hippi" and "khippi", with the same pronunciation. You really cannot draw conclusions from the transliteration of an oral language, which can vary a lot according to the country. Example : Wolof is mostly spoken in Senegal and Gambia, respectively a former French colony and a former British colony. Because several letters, for example "j", "i" and "e", are pronounced differently in French and English, most common Wolof surname are spelled very differently in the two countries, despite the fact that they are pronounced exactly the same way : Diop in Senegal = Joop in Gambia, N'Diaye in Senegal = N'Jie in Gambia, Diouf in Senegal = Joof in Gambia.

Subject: re:Sheidlower/ Crying Wolof/origin of hip
From: DannyBoy
Date: Dec 8 2004 2:48PM

I have some authority on this subject: I spent two years in Senegal (Peace Corps), spoke reasonably good Wolof and kept my own glossary of words which I later hand-copied as a dictionary since there were so few English-Wolof glossaries available. Furthermore, I wrote a newspaper column some years ago (Tampa Tribune) opining a number of these connections, all from my own observations. To wit:

1) I never heard the word "hipi" over there. But I heard what may be a regional variant, "Hebu", meaning "one who is aware." Sheidlower makes no notice of the fact that Senegal was where countless slaves from the entire West African coast were transshipped, from coastal slavers to oceangoing ones, at the Island of Goree in Dakar's harbor. I am unclear how many Wolofs were among those taken, but between Africans dealing with the slave trade, or those taken slaves and brought here, there were significant chances for contact. By the way, while the letter "h" isn't used in Wolof, the sound exists, and it is represented sometimes in modern Wolof orthography - which no one over there actually uses; people either write Wolof using Arabic characters, or learn French in school using Roman ones, or are illiterate in Wolof - by the letter "x". It may be closer to a guttural "ch" than to a nice breathy "h", but close enough for the sounds to have crossed over.

2) The word for "dance" in Wolof is "fecc", pronounced "fetch." Stepin Fetchit?

3) The word for "to smoke" in Wolof is "tokh," pronounced as it looks with a guttural ch at the end. "Toke" maybe?

4) I never bought the translation others touted between the Wolof word for "peanuts" - "gerte", pronounced "ger-teh" - and "goobers," so I appreciate the stretches those looking for connections will sometimes make. But there are others which are better.

5) I may have been one of the first proponents of the connections between an enthusiastic Wolof affirmative - "waaw-kay" and our favorite American slangism, "OK." But the sense is very close. In Wolof, "yes" is "waaw", pronounced "wow." You say "waaw-kay" when you're being particularly emphatic about it. Sort of an Austin Powers "yeah, BABY!" "I brought home dinner." "Waaw-KAY!" I always thought the "Old Kinderhook" explanation relating it to Martin Van Buren's campaign slogan was weak; the entymology relating it to Cherokee "okeh" may have been stronger. But I think mine is at least as plausible.

6) "Dig" is so obviously from Wolof that I don't think any debate can exist about it. Its sense is dead-on. Wolof "degg", which is pronounced "dig", means both "to hear" and more deeply "to understand," which is exactly what the slang "dig" means. You don't bother digging that the TV is on in the next room. You dig what someone is telling you.

7) "Bopp" in Wolof means "head," and among the senses of "bopping" in English is that moving of the head when you're not quite dancing but moving your head to the music. I don't know "bop"'s etymology back past the origin of bebop jazz, and I don't know where that phrase came from, or if "bop" precedes it.

8)This isn't exactly an etymology, but it is quite possible that the generic stereotypic African-savage phrase "ooga booga" comes from Wolof. A common phrase in the language is "nge bugge" - pronounced "oonga booga" - which means "you want" or "do you want." Something said multiple times daily and probably heard by any foreign visitor.

I had one or two others but can't lay hands on my column. The main ones are above. Anyone else who knows anything about Wolof out there?

-----Original Message-----
From: American Dialect Society [mailto:ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU]On Behalf
Of Jesse Sheidlower
Sent: Wednesday, December 08, 2004 10:23 PM
Subject: More on Wolof "hip"

ADS-L'ers who are a fan of the Wolof "hip" story might be
interested in my article on the subject in Slate:

They let me namecheck Larry for the headline, thank goodness,
though they insisted on using the word "coined".

Jesse Sheidlower

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