Jive Talkin’: The Origins of Cool Dudes, Groovy Chicks and Hip Cats

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How long have the fashionable people been referred to as "cool"? Where did the word "dude" come from? Here's a look at the origins of six calmly audacious words.

1. Cool

Cool, as a moderate version of cold, has been around for centuries. But by the early 1700s, it was also being applied to large sums of money to emphasize amounts, as in “That’ll cost you a cool million.” In 1732, the phrase “cool as a cucumber” appeared in a poem describing a man’s unflappable demeanor. A dictionary from 1825 lists “calmly audacious” as a definition of cool. By 1918, a Random House slang dictionary was defining cool as “urbane” or “sophisticated.” But cool really blossomed in the 1940s and 50s, amongst jazz musicians, as a way to describe great playing. It even came to describe a style of jazz, as popularized by Miles Davis - a laid-back sound, hushed but intense. Today, of course, cool is alive and well everywhere. As an indication, a Google search of the word produces over 3 billion results.

2. Dude

Dude first appeared on the scene in the late 19th century, most likely as a variation of “dud” — Victorian slang for an article of clothing. You still occasionally hear it today, as in “Hey, nice duds.” So, the original dudes were dandies, well-off young gents known for their fancy dress and wanton ways. Some years later, dude cropped up in the Western United States as a derogatory term for any city-dwelling visitor to cowboy country. It was just another way to say city slicker, and “dude ranches” were places that gave those slickers a little taste of life in the wild west. By the 1930s, dude was being used interchangeably with guy and fella, as a generic term for man. Thirty years later, it made a comeback amongst California surfers, who revived it with expressions like, “Cowabunga, dude” (and while we’re here, cowabunga was coined by the writers of The Howdy Doody Show, for the character Chief Thunderthud). Dude got additional pushes via the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in the ‘80s and The Big Lebowski in the ‘90s. Today it’s a seemingly permanent generic term for a person of either sex ("dudette" never quite caught on).

3. Groovy

First heard amongst jazz musicians in the 1920s, groovy — or groovey — was a word used to describe music that was played with feeling and finesse. It was based on the phrase “in the groove,” which referred to the way a phonograph needle on a record player followed the grooves of a record. To be groovy was to be in perfect sync with the music. Strangely, in 1947, 20th Century Fox used the word in a promo trailer to describe and promote the Christmas classic Miracle on 34th Street. The word made a major comeback in the 1960s, of course, as a kind of generic for anything good, as when Simon & Garfunkel famously sang, “Life I love you, all is groovy.” The Austin Powers films brought the word back again in the ‘90s, in a kitschy way. And kitschy is what groovy will probably remain.

4. Chick

Chick image via Shutterstock

As a term of endearment for kids, chick had been around since the 14th century. But as a specific reference to a young woman, it is thought to have first appeared in print in Sinclair Lewis’s 1927 novel Elmer Gantry: “... he didn't want to marry this brainless little fluffy chick, who would be of no help in impressing rich parishioners.” Again, it’s a word that was popular amongst jazz musicians in the 1930s and 40s, as in, “Dig that trio with a chick singer.” And by the way, dig — as in look at, or check out — was also a word that came from the fertile ground of the jazz scene.

5. Hip / Hep

Image via Nambassa Trust and Peter Terry

Hip or Hep. Which came first? Apparently, hep, appearing in the early 20th century. It meant in-the-know or fashionable, and was popular amongst jazz musicians. But its origin is mysterious. One theory traces it to army drill instructors, who yelled out marching cadences with “Hep, two, three, four.” The thought was that to be hep was then to be in step. A second theory connects it to the phrase “on the hip,” which meant “to use, or be addicted to opium.” It referred to the reclining posture of addicts in opium dens. Because opium was illegal and the dens were like speakeasies, “on the hip” was slang for “having inside knowledge.” Yet another theory says that it was brought into our language by slaves, as it’s connected to a West African word “hipi,” which means “to open one’s eyes.” Hipster first made the scene in the 1940s, to describe fans of bebop jazz. Hippie came along in the 1960s, as a term for any youth that embraced the counterculture. Hipster and hip have survived, while hep and hippie are heard much less these days, as is the ultra-rare heppie.

6. Cat

Would you rather be a dude or a cat? If it was the 1920s, definitely a cat. A dude was square. A cat was cool. Again, it’s the world of jazz that gave us this word for fellow or guy. It’s likely that it has some connection to the feline pet, for the popular conception of a jazz musician could be said to possess many similar qualities to a cat — quick on his feet, resourceful, but with a languid, slightly aloof quality.

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January 19, 2012 - 6:49am
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