[Ads-l] Hip/Hep and "Crying Wolof" (for Horn & Sheidlower)

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Thu Mar 10 02:32:37 UTC 2016

In response to Z Rice:

Speaking for myself, since you ask, I coined the label in response to Jesse's observation that the John Leland book in question. 

Etymological misattribution in popular culture is and has always been rampant; I assume you will agree that this is far from a myth.  More specifically, words of uncertain and undocumented origin are often claimed to derive from a particular source with scant evidence for the claim but with a particular extralinguistic motivation--cultural, social, national, whatever it may be.  We humans all like narratives, a fact that has led me elsewhere on this list to discuss the prevalence of what I call etymythology; although you describe my skepticism about the Dalby-Leland derivation of "hep" from Wolof as a dangerous myth, I think mythography is more likely to reside in the acceptance of word histories that support a particular political or sociocultural goal.  (As the threads from our discussions in 2004 will make clear, my attitude and those of several other members of ads-l at the time toward Leland's (or Dalby's) claims about the Wolof claims were of a piece with our evaluation of etymological theories that seem to be motivated by other causes, such as those made by Daniel Cassidy attempting to derive a good portion of English lexicon from Gaelic.) 

One vivid example is the explosion of theories over the years on the origin of "O.K." ("okay", OK) based on chance resemblances in sound and meaning to Choctaw "okeh", Greek "ola kala", French "au quai" or "aux Cayes", Scots "och aye", Martin "Old Kinderhook" Van Buren, or (according to David Dalby) any of various sources in various West African languages, including Wolof "waaw-kay". In fact, as Allan Walker Read demonstrated to the satisfaction of most impartial scholars, the source--unlikely as it may seem--is almost certainly "Orl Korrect".  But this could only be demonstrated by careful documentation of the context in which "O.K." and other jocular abbreviations arose in the 1830s and of the trajectory of its use over time and place, which is why the case made by AWR in his six papers in _American Speech_ was so convincing to lexicographers (and to other linguists like me).  If "fetch", for example, is attested in Old English, it seems unlikely that it represents a Wolof borrowing, as has been claimed. Resemblance in sound and meaning between a given word and its putative source should be ascribed to chance until proved otherwise by a preponderance of evidence (if not necessarily beyond a reasonable doubt) and, on the other side of the coin, derivations can be convincingly demonstrated in the absence of phonetic or orthographic resemblance as long as systematic sound correspondences can be shown.  

It is especially difficult to determine the etymology of a particular slang item, so it's not surprising that in this case the most important general dictionary, the OED, and the most carefully researched dictionary of American slang, Jon Lighter's HDAS, list "hep" and "hip" as of unknown origin.  The origin may in fact be Wolof, but I am convinced that the grounds for a straightforward assertion that it is of Wolof origin, as appears in Leland's book and echoed by McGrath in the review that prompted our discussion of the matter on the list in 2004, are lacking.   

Timing often makes a particular proposed derivation especially unlikely.  "Honky" is a case in point Jesse cites in the course of the Slate article you mention.  After discussing his grounds as a lexicographer for concluding that the etymology of "hip" ('aware, in the know', as opposed to the later semantic developments coming from African-American usage during the jazz era of the 1930s and 1940s that resulted in meanings like 'sophisticated, up-to-date') "is, unsatisfyingly, unknown", he goes on to add (my emphasis)

"And honky, also supposedly from Wolof, actually derives from an African-American pronunciation of Hunky, a disparaging term for a Hungarian laborer; its first recorded use as an insulting term for a white person is found only in the 1950s, considerably too late for African influence to be plausible. This linguistic sloppiness does no one any favors. The African-American contribution to American culture—and in particular the African-American linguistic contribution to American popular culture—is robust enough without reaching back to putative West African borrowings."

It is to these speculative derivations that I directed the label "crying Wolof".  In the fable I was referencing, the boy who cried wolf was not simply wrong, he was self-defeating in arguing for the presence of wolves without empirical evidence, so that when the real wolf came along and the boy once again cried wolf he was disbelieved, with fatal results for the sheep or the boy, depending on your version of Aesop.  My point was it would be unfortunate if the arguably false alarms of the kind represented by "hip" and "honky" were to cast doubts on the etymologies of words that really can be traced to African sources via the slave trade.  As noted by Jesse in the quoted passage, it is also unfortunate when expressions or traditions with origins in black American culture are provided with an African genesis, as in the extreme (but not isolated) case of deriving "Here we go Looby-Loo" (or "Looby-Lou") from the Luba people in Africa, on which , on which Wilson Gray commented eloquently here a while back:
http://listserv.linguistlist.org/pipermail/ads-l/2014-March/131250.html <http://listserv.linguistlist.org/pipermail/ads-l/2014-March/131250.html>

I also agree in general with the positions of John McWhorter that you disparaged upthread; I find his work quite insightful.  But I won't try to convince you on this or other points further.

Larry Horn


> On Mar 9, 2016, at 12:48 PM, Z Rice <zrice3714 at GMAIL.COM> wrote:
> I thought it might be better if I added this to its own dedicated thread,
> hopefully that's okay:
> Mr. Sheidlower / Mr. Laurence Horn, in my written work I assert that "hip"
> is indeed of Wolof origin and I assert that among the native
> African-American population, the "p" in the term "hip" is simply a mutation
> of the Wolof "w". Thus:
> hip / hep (adj)
> fashionable, en vogue, up-to-date in fashion, style, or events; the latest
> in fashion or style; the latest thing; what is currently happening (in
> events, style, and culture); happening
> ...comes from:
> Wolof
> xew (verbal adjective)
> 1) (to be) fashionable; (to be) en vogue; (to be) up-to-date in fashion or
> style; (to be) the latest in fashion or style; (to be) the latest thing;
> (to be) trendy; (to be) what's happening
> xew (verb)
> 2) to happen (when speaking of events); 3) to occur (when speaking of
> events)
> You wrote in the Slate.com "Crying Wolof" article, that Wolof has no "H".
> However, american english has no initial "X" (the voiceless back-velar
> fricative). The sound that would've been been CLOSEST in the US to that of
> the Wolof "x" is the english "h" (this was not mentioned in the Slate
> article), and in my work, I assert that "x" obviously mutated to "h"; and
> "w" mutated to "p"...since the word-final "w" in Wolof (voiced labio-velar
> semi-vowel) is fully articulated unlike the english word-final "w".
> w > p mutation is extremely common in linguistics and especially in Africa.
> For example: ndap / ndaw  both mean "house" in Cameroon. Likewise, malep
> /malew both mean "water" in Cameroon. there are endless examples of this in
> African language.
> This is what gives us AAV phrases like "a happenin suit"; or "happenin
> shoes" which wouldn't make sense otherwise in the english language, but
> make complete sense in AAV and definitely in Wolof.
> I'd appreciate your response (and by extension, Mr. Laurence Horn's
> response) as I believe that the "Cry Wolof" myth has had damaging effects
> on the advancement of the study of AAV. I'd appreciate hearing Mr.
> Sheidlower's and Mr. Horn's response to this. Thank you.
> The above referenced study:
> https://urldefense.proofpoint.com/v2/url?u=https-3A__www.scribd.com_doc_303169199_Preview-2DThe-2DMyth-2Dof-2DCry-2DWolof-2Dand-2Dthe-2DCase-2Dfor-2DWolof-2DEtymologies-3Fsecret-5Fpassword-3Deg99qbL55WOLpO0S8bk7-23fullscreen-3D1&d=AwIBaQ&c=-dg2m7zWuuDZ0MUcV7Sdqw&r=wFp3X4Mu39hB2bf13gtz0ZpW1TsSxPIWYiZRsMFFaLQ&m=OI7B45jP12Ncnz0GbNsiUHCEQ093wj2GZwHGZ-tHNvo&s=DyvIw8tiiQEPgmkLibz0FzWcgLUE3n9vqm0ErV375mo&e= 
> ------------------------------------------------------------
> The American Dialect Society - https://urldefense.proofpoint.com/v2/url?u=http-3A__www.americandialect.org&d=AwIBaQ&c=-dg2m7zWuuDZ0MUcV7Sdqw&r=wFp3X4Mu39hB2bf13gtz0ZpW1TsSxPIWYiZRsMFFaLQ&m=OI7B45jP12Ncnz0GbNsiUHCEQ093wj2GZwHGZ-tHNvo&s=HffEgJJhBxVOZzoiMidFDmrKdxqRe0QU00djaEnBFTQ&e= 

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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