Linguistic Notes: The jive descendants of the `hipikat'

Linguistic Notes

James Campbell
Thursday 27 May 1999 23:02

AMONG THE first cargoes of Africans delivered to the Virginia shore, there must have been a few who were regarded by their fellow slaves as "hipikats".

The word belongs to the Wolof language, spoken in parts of West Africa. Hipikat means a sage or intelligent fellow, one who is in the know, and the same all-round alertness is supposed to characterise his descendants, the hep-cat, the hip cat, the hipster.

Wolof speakers also used the word "bugal" (to annoy or worry), which was retained more or less in that form until 200 years or so later somebody said: "Don't bug me." Wolof "deg" or "dega" means to understand or appreciate. You dig? "Gay" is an ordinary guy, while "hong" - literally "pink" - was used to describe a white guy, especially one who was bugging a hep black cat. The hep-cats of the 1920s and 1930s kept the word as "honkie".

Other words associated with jive talk have been traced to Mandingo and Bantu languages; yet others may have been cross- fertilised by the idioms of Southerners of British descent. The origins of the blues, for example, are rooted as much in Scottish and Irish ballads as in African rhythm, and the use of "man" as an insistent form of address is universal among Scottish Highlanders, many of whom left their own poverty-stricken territory to become prosperous plantation owners, overseeing African slaves in the American South.

During the 1930s, jive talk moved out of black society, as swing bands became popular, and jazz was more widely broadcast. The vocabulary percolated down to white musicians, and became known in mainstream jazz journals as "swing talk". They ran glossaries as features, partly as a form of entertainment, but also as a way of emphasising the jazz musician's special attitude to life, denoted in his music by altered chords, and in his speech by the set of alterations known as "jive", the hip cat's seven types of ambiguity. For blacks this was a way of keeping one step ahead of the listener-in, for whites a way of stealing a little of the outlaw glamour of blacks.

Mezz Mezzrow's Really the Blues, the first book by a white man to exploit the speech of blacks at length and without condescension, came out in 1946. Mezzrow, a clarinet player, was Jewish, but spent his days and nights in Harlem, where he was as well known for pushing drugs as for playing his clarinet, or liquorice stick.

In the 1930s, he had twice attempted the radical experiment of combining black and white musicians in the same ensemble, though he failed on both occasions. As the magazine Down Beat reported of the second attempt, in 1938, "Nobody showed".

When Mezzrow went to prison for drug-dealing, he was housed in the Negro section, presumably so that people could make out what he was saying. To give the reader of his autobiography an idea of how this sounded, a playlet set on a Harlem street-corner was included;

First Cat: Hey there Poppa Mezz, is you anywhere?

Me: Man, I'm down with it, stickin' like a honky.

First Cat: Lay a trey on me, ole man.

Me: Got to do it, slot. (Pointing to a man). Gun the snatcher on your left raise - the head mixer laid a bundle his ways, he's posin' back like crime sure pays.

First Cat: Father grab him. I ain't payin' him no rabbit. Jim, this jive you got is a gasser.

Second Cat: Hey Mezzie, lay some of that hard-cuttin' mess on me. I'm short of a deuce of blips but I'll straighten you later.

Messrow appended a glossary to Really the Blues (and a translation of the playlet: "First Cat: Hello Mezz, have you got any marijuana? Me: Plenty, old man . . ."). The glossary included kick: good feeling; junkie: dope fiend; skin-beater: drummer; and many other words which had been given in the vocabularies printed in music magazines before the war. And a new word, post-war: beat: exhausted, broke.

James Campbell is the author of `This is the Beat Generation' (Secker & Warburg, pounds 16.99)

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