Far Out: The Hippie Dialect

Hippie Van

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The etymology of dialect words is an obsession for English language enthusiasts. And thanks to Google NGram, Google Books, Google Scholar and other Google-related tools, it’s never been easier for laymen to research the origins of slang. But the question of when (and how) dialect words disappear from the lexicon remains a difficult question to answer.

Which brings me to today’s topic, the lingo of the countercultural movement of the 1960’s and early 1970’s. Linked to the Baby Boomers (the generation born in the decades after World War II), these types of words briefly flourished during the Vietnam era. Today, however, many such words are non-existent in the lexicon of contemporary American dialects. What happened?

I would define the countercultural era (so to speak) as being between 1966-1974, since that’s when the bulk of “classic boomers” (born 1943-1957) were of college age. One of the great generational shifts in American history, the period was marked by young people eschewing the corporate mindset of their parents in favor of a culture of relaxed mores and lifestyles.  It’s not surprising that this period was also associated with tremendous change in the American dialect.

The slang of this period is well-known, symptomatic of what might be called “hippie English.”  A small sample:

cat: a colloquial term for “man”
dig: verb, meaning “to understand”
far out: along the lines of  “awesome” or “cool” in contemporary American dialects
groovy: also along the lines of  “awesome” or “cool”in contemporary American dialects
mama: term of endearment applied to female significant other
grass: marijuana
foxy: sexually attractive (usually applied to women, but occasionally men as well)
ball: verb, meaning to have sex with

These terms have a variety of etymologies. Many (such as “cat” or “dig”) started within the lexicon of the dialect known as African American Vernacular English (“dig” is hypothesized to derive from Wolof). Other words seem to hark back to the beatnik era in the 1950’s. But all of these have become extremely old hat, at least in America.

So why did these dialect words (“hippie” or “boomer” lingo) become so passe? There are two possible answers:

1.) The children of baby boomers disassociated themselves from their parents. People of my generation (Gen Y) and the generation before it (Gen X) have something of a cynical attitude toward the generation of our parents, and probably the accompanying “dialect.”  It’s easy to see how we may have sought to wipe all traces of the countercultural excess from our vocabularies.

2.) Baby boomers THEMSELVES disassociated from the countercultural movement. When my parents use phrases such as “far out,” “groovy” or “can you dig?” it is usually in a spirit of contemptuous mockery. Many people of this generation have actively distanced themselves from the terminology associated with the drug scene of the late 60’s.

I think a bit of both factors came into play. The boomers notoriously became more conservative in the Reagan/Thatcher era, so it’s not surprising that they wanted to get as far away from the era of free love and communes as possible. At the same time, later generations became disillusioned with the irresponsibility and delusion associated with the ’60s and ’70s.

Anybody of that generation care to comment?

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About Ben Trawick-Smith

Ben Trawick-Smith launched his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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18 Responses to Far Out: The Hippie Dialect

  1. Charles Sullivan says:

    Curiously, the word “cool” continues on to this day, from my observation.

    • trawicks says:

      To be devil’s advocate against my own post, it’s also possible that some words associated with 1960s/70s English (like “cool,” as you mentioned) have become SO ingrained in American English that we forget their countercultural/hippie origins.

  2. Lane says:

    Aren’t countercultural and teenage slang-words inherently short-lived? As soon as it leaves the young people’s and outsiders’ mouths and becomes part of the language more generally, the cool kids have to move on to remain cool.

  3. Z. D. Smith says:

    The Hippie movement was, from its inception, particularly polarizing on a lot of dimensions, including cultural cachet. I think there was never a time when hippie slang was considered merely au courant or contemporary. qv the 1968 comedy ‘The Producers’, where the hippie is already a very well established stereotype (unchanged from today’s stereotype of the hippie) and object of ridicule—and not at all from a conservative or reactionary perspective, either. If terms like ‘mama’ or ‘groovy’ were already ridiculous to Mel Brooks (pre-Boomer, but definitely still with it in ’68) when they were in vogue, it’s no surprise that they might not have lasted unto today—their cachet was always at least somewhat subcultural.

    Along related lines—and if the above is true, maybe to help tease apart which terms fell victim to this phenomenon and which had more of a fighting chance—I think it’s useful to distinguish, indeed, between countercultural lingo and hippie lingo. My father, born ’50, is to this day a long-haired, groovy liberal, but he always hated hippies. He was counterculture, he insisted; his ilk actually did things, rather than just getting high in the park. So again, even at the time, within the youth movement itself, hippiedom was not a universally prestigious phenomenon. It stands to reason that the diachronically questionable nature of hippie culture would dampen its language’s prospects for perpetuation.

  4. trawicks says:

    @Lane,

    I think the principle extends beyond youth. You can see a similar process in the diffusion of African American vocabulary into a wider population. Word originates in the African American community, spreads to “white” community, stops beings used by African American community, starts being associated with affected white people, stops being used entirely. “Cat” strikes me as a good early example of this.

    @Z.D.

    Very good points, all. My parents may have leaned toward the “countercultural,” but they definitely weren’t hippies. I’ve never quite understood the distinction, although I’ve gotten the impression “hippies” were somewhat more apolitical (and, their critics might argue, more driven by drugs and sexual opportunism).

    • Julie says:

      I was very young at the time, but never had the idea that hippies were, in any way, apolitical. The political side: anti-war, anti-draft, and more broadly, anti-conformism. (Yes, it was noted, many times, that they all chose to be nonconformist in about the same way. Irony noted.)

      The older hippies I know today believe in drugs partly because they’re opposed to alcohol and cigarettes. I don’t know if they felt the same way when I was eight, but probably.

  5. Jack Trawick says:

    Your essay evokes memories of four different but contiguous periods: the Beat period, ca. 1958-1961; the Counterculture ascendancy, ca. 1967-1969; Counterculture disintegration and commercialization, ca. 1970-73; and the onset of Polyester Discomania, ca. 1977-1980. Although “hippies” were certainly the most colorful group of all these periods, they represented a small subset of the larger maelstrom of cultures and events that marked these two decades. There were Beatniks and Squares, Beach Bums, and Beatlemaniacs, Freaks (more edgy than your garden-variety Hipster), Heads and Panthers; and every type of Vietnam Vet.

    Perhaps those who failed to adopt any of the frivolous slang of hippie culture were distracted by the graver aspects of life during the period (e.g. assassinations, race riots and wars, fear of nuclear annihilation).

  6. Jack Trawick says:

    Your essay evokes memories of four different but contiguous periods: the Beat period, ca. 1958-1961; the Counterculture ascendancy, ca. 1967-1969; Counterculture disintegration and commercialization, ca. 1970-73; and the onset of Polyester Discomania, ca. 1977-1980. Although “hippies” were certainly the most colorful group of all these periods, they represented a small subset of the larger maelstrom of cultures and events that marked these two decades. There were Beatniks and Squares, Beach Bums, and Beatlemaniacs, Freaks (more edgy than your garden-variety Hipster), Heads and Panthers; and every type of Vietnam Vet.

    Or perhaps those who failed to adopt any of the frivolous slang of hippie culture were distracted by the graver aspects of life during the period (e.g. assassinations, race riots and wars, fear of nuclear annihilation).

  7. Amy Stoller says:

    I think that labeling these terms part of a hippie “dialect” is stretching the term dialect a little further than it can comfortably go. As you’ve pointed out yourself, many of these terms, some of which have been absorbed into contemporary speech to the point where their use would no longer raise eyebrows in any but the most formal contexts, were current long before the brief heyday of the Hippie (mid-60s through early 70s).

    Incidentally, groovy, which owes its origins to jazz and the recording industry, has made a comeback. And some people never stopped using “cat.”

    And equating hippie with baby boomer is simply a non-starter. Some baby boomers were hippies, but many, many were not. I was born at the tail end of the baby boom. I knew few, if any, genuine hippies, though many people who were active in one way or another in protesting the US involvement in Vietnam. I used to leaflet for the Moratorium at the tender age of 10.

  8. JG says:

    Long time reader, first time commenter… anyhow, I would like to mention that “cat” and “dig” are still used in Af-American vernacular, at least in some communities. The rest of terms though are almost unheard of though outside of an ironic or humorous context.

    • Joe says:

      I’m from a very diverse section of Atlanta, and “cat” and “dig” were definitely part of the slang I heard growing up (and I’m 25). Interestingly, I lived in Charleston for a little while, and those terms were also popular among the surfer community there.

  9. trawicks says:

    @Jack,

    It does strike me that the words that didn’t survive were those most associated with escapism. Of the list I provided above, all of those words are related to sex, drugs or idleness!

    @Amy,

    I definitely don’t equate boomers with hippies! My fanciful title notwithstanding, I don’t think “hippie” can be satisfactorily defined. The Wikipedia article on the subject, for example, cites beatniks, countercultural types, Summer of ’67ers, new agers, Eastern religion devotees, and druggies. It strikes me, then, that “hippie” describes a variety of attributes which were probably never to be found in any one person or community. It also seems an outsider term, which was applied liberally (Richard Nixon describing any young man with long hair) or less liberally (a young leftist trying to disassociate himself from the drug scene).

    @JG,

    Thanks for mentioning that! You know, I’ve never heard “dig” or “cat” in contemporary African American English–I’ve always assumed it faded from usage a long time ago. I’d be curious to know where it has survived.

  10. Olive Garcow says:

    There are at least two distinct subcategories of counterculture dialect spoken by middle class white kids that I can recall from the 60s (and, yes, I remember that period, even though I was there!):

    1.) Flower Child Dialect:

    Who spoke it: Drugged out college kids, middle class “street kids,” most characters in the movie Easy Rider, Arlo Gutherie introducing his drug song at Woodstock “The freeway’s closed, man, can you dig it?” (which his own children tease him about to this day!).

    Requisite accompanying gestures and inflections: Dazed vacant stare, odd giggles, peace signs, pupils the size of saucers, distractible manner, incomplete sentences, slow, slurred speech as if ones mouth was full of oatmeal. (And, I’m being serious, these things were present are when speaker was not stoned! It was called acting cool.)

    Examples: “Groovy,” “Far out, man,” (or the more colorful, “far fu**ing out”), “like” (inserted at least once in every sentence—e.g., “It’s, like, so cool, it’s, like, not even, like, funny . . “) “trippy,” (as in “trippy head” or “trippy day”), “man” (a required ending to every sentence spoken to another person, male or female—or even oneself), “peace,” (as a farewell utterance, sometimes accompanied by peace sign), “If it feels good, do it,” “old lady” or “old man” (to refer to a pseudo-monogamous sex partner–they were so common in that time) and then, of course: “doobie,” “roach,” “blunt,” “weed,” “shotgun,” and “joint.”

    2.) White Kid Radical-Politico talk:

    Who spoke it: College students, anti-war activisits, pseudo-revolutionaries, white kids people who wanted to be black.

    Requisite Accompanying gestures and inflections: Non-standard English of the “working man” (e.g., We ain’t puttin’ up with this no more”), African-American/Southern drawl, black power handshake, raised clenched fist, two-fingered peace sign).

    Examples: “Right on” (or “right on, people”), As-Salaam-Alaikum” (the black muslim greeting, accompanied by black power handshake), “revolution” (evoked regularly in everyday speech, e.g., “After the revolution, these sneakers won’t cost so much”), “up against the wall, mother f***er” (screamed into faces of national guard troops or just your roommate) “smash the state,” “pig” or “capitalist pig” (to refer to almost anyone you don’t like, but especially cops, people of authority, or wealthy people, except your own family), “power to the people,” (as a greeting, with clenched fist), “the whole world’s watching,” “peace,” peace now,” “liberate” (used with political meaning or to justify shoplifting—“I’m going liberate this apple, man”).

    So, where did all this rich language go? Some of it was incorporated into everyday mainstream talk–as many of you have written. But for the most part: We all grew up and realized how silly we sounded. The next generations have adopted their own, equally-ridiculous and wonderful languages—”I know, right?”

  11. Ball:

    Good Golly Miss Molly
    You sure like to ball
    Good Golly Miss Molly
    You sure like to ball
    And when you’re rocking and rolling
    You can’t hear your mamma call

  12. TameL says:

    To piggy-back on JG’s post, the word “cat” especially is still used in contemporary AAVE. From my experience it’s mostly confined to the musical community in particular and is sometimes used by whites as well (most of whom are also part of the contemporary musical community), out of either affectation or simply because it’s part of the “in” lexicon. Moreover, in the popular mind the word “cat” is usually associated with the jazz community rather than with the hippie stereotype per se.

    With regards to “dig”, the meaning has gone from meaning to understand (“I dig what your saying) to meaning to enjoy (I dig that band a lot, man). So in this case the word hasn’t been abandoned entirely, but has experienced a semantic shift, I guess you could say.

    • trawicks says:

      That’s an excellent point. “Dig” is indeed still used, but it’s almost entirely in regard to music or some other form of entertainment. The form that’s mostly disappeared is as a synonym of “understand” particularly in the tag “you dig?”

  13. Pingback: This Week’s Language Blog Roundup | Wordnik ~ all the words

  14. Jon Doh says:

    All the drugs and acid dropped in the ’60’s severely damaged the brains of the hippies, which is what led them later to become conservatives.

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