What is the origin of the expression “hip hip hurrah”? According to one book I’ve read, it derives from an abbreviation of the Latin Hierusylema est perdita, “Jerusalem is destroyed.” Apparently, medieval anti-Semites yelled “Hep! Hep!” as they exiled or executed innocent Jews. Can this be true? Can modern expressions such as hip, hipster, hippie, and hip-hop have such an odious etymology? Say it ain’t so. –Name withheld, Washington, D.C.

You’re not going to believe it, but there may be a germ of truth to this bizarre story.

Hip, hippie, hipster, and presumably hip-hop all derive from hep (meaning hip, of course), which dates from the turn of the century. There are several theories on where hep came from:

(1) From the marching cadence “hep, two, three, four.” If you were hep, you were in step with what was happening.

(2) From Joe Hep, who ran a low-life saloon in Chicago in the 1890s. (You may recall our recent discussion of another 1890s Chicago saloon keeper who allegedly lent his name to the language, Mickey Finn. 1890s Chicago saloon keepers were obviously quite a crew.) Hep liked to hover around the local hoods while they plotted their dirty deeds and fancied himself in the know. His name was originally used ironically to refer to someone who thought he knew what was going on but didn’t. The ironic sense was soon lost, and to get Joe to or to get hep to simply meant to get the straight dope, so to speak (source: D.W. Maurer, American Speech, 1941).

(3) According to a 1914 slang dictionary, “from the name of a fabulous detective who operated in Cincinnati.”

Of the three explanations, the first is probably the least ridiculous. Hep (or hup or hip) has long been a multipurpose exclamation. In addition to being a cadence counter, it was a traditional cry used by teamsters and herders to rouse animals. Hip was used to mean something on the order of “yo” or “hey” in the 18th century, and folks obviously thought it made a nice kickoff for hip hip hurrah.

Now we get to the bizarre part. Anti-Semitic rioters in Europe in the 19th century often shouted “Hep! Hep!” while on the prowl for Jews. Mob harassment of Jews in Hamburg, Frankfurt, and other German cities in 1819, in fact, became known as the “Hep! Hep!” riots.

The origin of the expression is unclear. Some claim it derived from Hierusylema (also spelled Hierosolyma) est perdita. Personally I think this is preposterous. Others say it came from the German habe, in this context apparently meaning “give.” But some believe it was nothing more than the traditional herdsmen’s cry, perhaps used because the rioters thought Jews ought to be rounded up like animals.

Does this mean we owe hip, hippie, hip hip hurrah, and the rest to the howling of a bunch of Jew baiters? Not necessarily. Literary citations of hip hip hurrah in clearly innocent contexts date from 1818, the year before the “Hep! Hep!” riots. (I’ve seen nothing to convince me “Hep! Hep!” was used in the Middle Ages.) The most plausible explanation is that hip hip hurrah and “Hep! Hep!” simply have a common source, the herder’s cry. Still, it’s something to think about next time you’re about to give someone a rousing cheer.

How come water towers are always elevated, while petroleum tanks are on the ground? –T.R. Sayers

Because water towers are a cheap, reliable way of generating enough pressure to get the water into your house–not an issue with petroleum tanks. If you didn’t have towers you’d have to use pumps, and buying enough pumps to meet peak demand would be prohibitively expensive for most towns. Towers simplify matters. You pump water up at a steady rate and gravity does all the work getting it down. Since the pressure is a function of the height of the column of water inside the tower, and since the height of that column doesn’t diminish appreciably until the tank is virtually empty, the pressure stays steady regardless of fluctuations in supply and demand.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.