Cartoon hipsters, modelling their hipster style.

What is it with the word "hipster"?

"People want to be hip, but don't want to be called hip"


When a student in the University of King's College journalism program recently wrote a commentary on hipster style, she surely didn't know just how much of a stir her commentary would cause.

A young man who had been featured in her piece was, to put it lightly, less than impressed about being referred to as "hipster." He tracked down the journalism student on the campus and let her know just how he felt about it.

There have always been words used to refer to the non-mainstream --beatnik, hippie, punk-- but "hipster" is one word that has taken on negative connotations for many, and people get offended when classified with that word. This begs the question: what is it with the word "hipster"?

Negative connotations

"It's used mostly for people who are young, urban, and socially aware... in the sense that they are sensitive to the social meaning of things and labels," says Gerard Van Herk, a linguistics professor at Memorial University in Newfoundland, who focuses on sociolinguistics and language change.

"Those are the kind of people who don't like that they can be reduced to a stereotype, caricature or name.

"It seems to have really taken on negative connotations in the last five to 10 years," he says, noting the word now has a negative connotation meaning something closer to "poseur."

In both email and phone conversations on Thursday, Van Herk says "hipster" started out with a positive in-group meaning.

Whether words such as "hipster" evolve, can often depend on whether they're used inside the community or outside.

"If it's a 'we' name, it tends to be positive, and if it's a 'them' name, it tends to be negative. Hipster seems to have jumped from one to the other."

Van Herk says the word itself is almost certainly half-African American and half-Yiddish, and so it has an urban Jewish ancestry. It started off as being a positive word for urban people. "It's sort of a '30s or '40s word."

A contradiction, an insult

Some students think the word "hipster" is right on track with what Van Herk said.

"It's very contradictory," Sam Legere, a student at King's, says about people's attitudes toward the word. "People want to be into things that no one else is into. People want to be hip, but don't want to be called hip."

"I think it's blatantly used as an insult," Legere says.

Allie Bartlett and Nerrissa Boudreau, who both attend King's, says "hipster" is used as a bad word. While neither of them say they would identify with that word, they do feel King's students are often described as being "hipster" because of the school's liberal arts focus; the liberal arts being integral to the "hipster" culture.

Some counterculture words are proudly reclaimed and people will identify with them, such as punk, or grunge. But few people proudly call themselves "hipster," taking offence when being referred to in this way. "Hipster may take a while to get reclaimed," Van Herk says.

It's a challenge to pick out who or what really is "hipster," since it is a lifestyle and culture that has been adopted by a huge group of 20-somethings. These days, who doesn't occasionally wear skinny jeans, American Apparel V-neck T-shirts, plaid flannel and a keffiyeh with a slouchy beanie?


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