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Remembering the Hipster

We Asked an Expert If Hipsters Have Fucked Up the English Language

Hipsters use English. Hipsters ruin everything. Therefore, did hipsters ruin English?

by Mike Pearl
Dec 16 2015, 12:00am

Enough time has passed since the world was at Peak Hipster for us to look back at it as a movement, or a craze, or a meme, or whatever the fuck it was and try to take stock of what it all meant, if anything. So this week we're doing exactly that in a short collection of stories.

Last October on JSTOR Daily, a mysterious researcher named Chi Luu ran a story called "More Hipster Than Thou: Is Vintage Language Back in Vogue," a "decidedly unscientific investigation" into whether or not hipsters have recently brought old, outdated language back into style. The study honed in on a recent mathematically-tracked resurgence in the use of the words smitten, bespoke, peruse, dapper, parlor, vintage, perchance, mayhaps, amongst, whilst, amidst, unbenknownst, thou, thy, thee, hath and ere.

That list sounded convincingly like a bunch of words used by some irritating Portlandia character, but it seemed off the mark. Besides, if hipsterdom really has had an effect on language, it would, presumably, be something much bigger than just talking like a high school theater kid.

Read: VICE staff confess the most hip things they've ever done

So we got in touch with one of the leading historians of English words and slang: Indiana University professor of English Michael Adams, editor of American Speech and president-elect of the Dictionary Society of North America. To start with, we ran the ideas in that JSTOR Daily article by him. He was dubious about the connection between those words and hipsters, but he had a whole lot to say about the effect of hipsters on language, and vice versa.

VICE: Is the JSTOR story an accurate peek at the effect hipsters are having on English?
Michael Adams: I think that the fundamental problem with the article—and I think this is a typical mistake—is that it buys into the notion that hipsters are more likely to use slang than other people, because hipsters are cool and slang is cool. A kind of false-transitivity. I don't see where, in any of the data, we see a connection to hipster culture. It's not unusual for a grandchild's generation to pick up a term from a grandparents' generation and use it. The one I heard most recently from somebody was "dig it." Kids saying "dig it," or "can you dig it?" obviously not picking it up from their 1980s parents but from their 1960s grandparents.

If all of hipsterism is working to maintain hipsterism past its time, then it's no longer hip. It's entered into its parody stage.

But would you say these might be hipster words?
"Hip" is an interesting word because to be in-the-know is to be hip. Lots of people want to be in-the-know, and lots of people claim to be in-the-know, and there's an aspiration to be in-the-know, so I think different vocabularies get crossed and muddled in all of that, and it's probably not the coolest of the cool who are using the word "dapper" right now. And "bespoke" is a strange word for a hipster to use, because a hipster is probably not wearing the sort of suit, or the sort of shoes that are bespoke.

Let me give you an anecdote where someone reasonably hip who I know used the word "bespoke" recently: We were at a Halloween event with scary mazes, and he called the VIP scary maze a "bespoke haunting experience." Wasn't that hip?
I suppose it could be part of being hip if it were sort of an ironic judgment on what was going on. Here I am, a VIP and yet I kind of look down on the VIP-ness of the thing, so I'm gonna use this word that's fancy and belongs to people of privilege, and I'm going to turn it on my own privilege in this case with a sense of humor.

So might hipness have a role in bringing words like this back?
This is the way we build up our vocabularies with slang: sometimes we hear things that have a potential cool factor in them. Or we think we can use them that way, so we just do.

If words like "bespoke" and "dapper" aren't necessarily being used by hip people, what else might be bringing them back?
There may be a sort of Junior-year-abroad phenomenon going on there that links to something that's vaguely urbane, or hipster. But I think it can be as much Urban Outfitters as it is a matter of real hipster-ism. I think that the array of words that she has chosen to include there suggests a lack of discrimination. They're not words all of the same category.

It's the knowingness about knowingness about knowing about being in the know.

Let's say hipsters are going around using these words, though. What would that tell us about language?
If they are in fact attached to hipster speech, you may already have the sort of self-destructive parody of hipsterism right there. When hipsters start going around reaching for words like unbeknownst, when they're fortifying the hipster vocabulary with new items, because being hip isn't sufficient to come into a hip way of speaking, then you know that hipsterism is at the stage of overreach. If you have to work at being a hipster, you're not hip. And if all of hipsterism is working to maintain hipsterism past its time, then it's no longer hip. It's entered into its parody stage.

Can't parody be part of the effect hipsters are having on language?
It's very meta. It's knowingness about knowingness about knowing about being in the know. And at a certain point you're just one step too meta above the actual phenomenon for the phenomenon to be working anymore.

What have you observed in language lately that might be connected to hipness?
"Fuck yeah!" as an expression of an attitude that's relatively new. It happened in kind of a hip way. People started to use that phrase, and it's got a complicated history—different sites on the web kinda want to compete over who got to "fuck yeah" first. But it ended up being recognizably part of the Tumblr brand, and all the sites started to sprout up, like "Fuck Yeah, Minestrone Soup!" and "Fuck Yeah, Thimble Collecting!" It's possible to use it because it's already devulgarized, but then, using it in this earnest way is another stage in its devulgarization, so it really changes the status of the f-word to use it in a position like "fuck yeah."

I have to admit I kind of hate this phenomenon. Why does it annoy me to see "fuck" become part of a cliche?
One of the points I make in my forthcoming book, In Praise of Profanity, is that we may be in a very delicate position with profanity right now. It's basically lost its taboo, and it's vulgar, but it's not really very vulgar. There's a point at which, if there's too much parody, or it gets too devulgarized, then it's no longer available for those uses. And it's not available for any of the older truly vulgar uses.

I feel like I need new bad words. Is that some kind of hipster reaction?
If you wanted language to express a dissident point of view, you've used that formerly dissident language enough that you've lost the vocabulary of dissidence. People who started to swear a lot thinking that was proving something may have pulled the rug out from under profanity in the end.

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