Hip-hop, 1671-style

The word hip-hop dates from at least 1671. Yes, you read that right. 

In 2012 or some time before, I bought David Crystal’s introduction to and anthology of Samuel Johnson’s A dictionary of the English language (1752). I was surprised to find an entry for hip-hop, which Johnson illustrates by a quotation from William Congreve (1670-1729):

Your different tastes divide our poets cares;
One foot the sock, t’other the buskin wears:
Thus while he strives to please, he’s forc’d to do’t,
Like Volscius hip-hop in a single boot.

This began a lot of research at the time and again while drafting this blog post. In 1695, Congreve wrote an “epiloge” to a play by Thomas Southerne (1660-1746) based on the short novel Oronooko (1688) by Aphra Behn (1640-1698). The epilogue, spoken by one of the actresses to the audience, addresses the poet’s task. It starts:

YOU see, we try all Shapes, and Shifts, and Arts,
To tempt your Favours, and regain your Hearts.
We weep, and laugh, joyn mirth and grief together,
Like Rain and Sunshine mixt, in April weather.

then continues with the four lines above. 

Congreve is alluding to the play The rehearsal (1671), probably by the Duke of Buckingham and others, a satirical play aimed specifically at John Dryden and generally at the sententious and overly ambitious theatre of the Restoration tragedy” (Wikipedia) (full text). 

While putting on his boot(s), Prince Volscius soliloquises about the choice between honour (represented by the boot) and love (represented by the sock): “Honour, aloud, commands, pluck both Boots on; But softer Love does whisper put on none.” Unable to decide between honour, love or boots (“So does my Honour and my Love together / Puzzle me so, I can resolve for neither”), he “Goes out hopping with one Boot on and the other off” (the stage direction).

Two other characters, a playwright/director and an experienced, cynical theatregoer, comment on the action:

Johns[on, the theatregoer]. By my troth, Sir, this is as difficult a Combat as ever I saw, and as equal ; for ’tis determined on neither side. 
Bayes [the playwright]. Ay, is’t not now I gad, ha? For, to go off hip hop, hip hop, upon this occasion, is a thousand times better than any conclusion in the world, I gad. 
Johns. Indeed, Mr. Bayes, that hip hop, in this place as you say, does a very great deal. 

So the (possibly) first hip-hop a) dates from 1671 and b) refers to actual hopping. It is possible that there are earlier usages, either in print or speech, but any search for hip-hip origin gets overwhelmed by references to 1970s urban subculture. The origin of the term in the 1970s is also vague (see Wikipedia). 

Johnson (the dictionary writer, not the character in the play) defines hip-hop as “A cant word formed by the reduplication of ‘hop’”. (He wasn’t shy about his opinions about words, labelling many as “low”, “cant” or “vile”). Reduplication is a common process in many languages, either for meaning or grammar. In English, it usually creates “informal expressive vocabulary”, and  i>o (/ɪ/>/ɒ/, high-front>low-back) is especially common: clip-clop, ding-dong, flip-flop, King Kong, ping-pong, sing-song, slipslop, spit-spot, tick-tock, tip-top and wibble-wobble, also hippety-hoppety and bippety-boppety-boo.  

I started by saying “In 2012 or some time before …”. I know that because I posted about this in one of my masters degree subjects in that year, specifically the unit on Asian languages (hooray for keeping almost everything I’ve posted somewhere, and for searches of hard drives). I can’t remember the immediate context, but reduplication is common in Asian languages, to form plurals or to indicate many/much/big/great/repeated/continuing etc. 


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