Friday, July 4, 2014

Hip-story – the History and Etymology of a False English-language Etymology Based on an Unsubstantiated German-language Etymology

The phrase hip, hip, hurrah! came into fashion sometime between 1805 and 1811.  The phrase combined a long-standing tradition of giving “three cheers” with the interjection, hip, hip, that was in common use in the 1700s, as a greeting or call to get someone’s attention.  The phrase appeared too early to have been derived from the German, anti-Semitic rallying cry, Hep, Hep, from the so-called Hep, Hep riots of 1819, as some suggest.  The phrase also appeared too recently to have originated during the Crusades of the middle-ages, as others suggest.  

Hip, hip, hurrah quickly became deeply ingrained in the pop-culture and language; so much so, that within just a few years, its fairly recent, innocent origins were already lost to history.  In its place, a darker, more sinister version of its origins took root.  Despite early skepticism of the sinister, false etymology, and despite the lack of any real proof to support the story, the dark version persists. 

The Origins of the False Origin Story

The false origin story of hip, hip, hurrah! dates to at least 1832, at a time when hip, hip, hurrah! was barely twenty years old, and within thirteen years of the anti-Semitic violence in Germanythat spawned the phrase, hep, hep:

Hip, Hip, Hurra! – During the stirring times of the Crusades, the chivalry of Europe was excited to arms by the inflammatory appeals of the well-known Peter the Hermit.  While preaching the Crusade, this furious zealot was accustomed to exhibit a banner emblazoned with the following letters, H.E.P., the initials of the Latin words, “Hierosolyma Est Perdita,” Jerusalem is destroyed.  The people in some of the countries which he visited, not being acquainted with the Latin, read and pronounced the inscription as if one word – Hep.  The followers of the Hermit were accustomed, whenever an unfortunate Jew appeared in the streets, to raise the cry, “Hep, hep, hurra,” to hunt him down, and flash upon the defenceless Israelite their maiden swords, before they essayed their temper with the scimetar of the Saracen. – Tatler.

The Mirror of Literature, Amusement, and Instruction, Volume 19, London, J. Limbird, 1832, page 208.

The story is horrifying, dramatic, ancient, and purports to be connected to events of historic importance and, to a certain kind of person, perhaps heroic.  It has the ring of truth and is presented as uncontested historic fact.  Perhaps that is precisely why the story proved so seductive to later etymologists and why the story persists to this day. 

But this description, written in 1832, was not based on ancient documents from the time of the Crusades, it was based on a story about the Crusades that first circulated in 1819, during the time of the Hep, Hep riots.  The main difference between the 1832 version and the 1819 version is the addition of the word, hurrah, and the substitution of the English, hip, hip, for the original German, Hep, Hep.  Adding to the confusion, is the fact that the original German story may itself have been a fabrication.  Several German-language sources from the early and mid-nineteenth century suggest that the purported origin of Hep, from H.E.P., is just a myth.

Contemporary Description of the Hep, Hep - 1819

Although the use of “hep, hep” during pre-Crusades violence against Jews in the 1090s is up for debate, there is no doubt that anti-Jewish mobs chanted the phrase during widespread violence against Jews in Germany in 1819.  In August of 1819, the New Times newspaper in England published a letter from Frankfurt, Germany, describing the spread of the violence.  Part of the letter explains a purported etymology of the phrase, hep, hep, that was used during the attacks:[i]

The Hep! Hep! Which was the watchword of the rioters in the late attacks on the Jews, according to old chronicles had the following origin: - In the year 1097, a party of crusaders, headed by Peter Gansfleish and Conrad von Leiningen, went about recruiting for followers with colours, on which were inscribed the first letters of the words, Hierosolyma est perdita (Jerusalem is lost), H. E. P.  This swarm, however, never proceeded to the Holy Land, but remained in Germany, where they everywhere persecuted and murdered the Jews, and more particularly along the Rhine.  Wherever this band came up with their colours, the people exclaimed Hep! Hep! And fell upon the Jews.

The Jewish Expositor, and Friend of Israel, volume 4, 1819, November, page 418 (citing the New Times, August 28, 1819.

The letter cites unnamed “old chronicles,” to support the stated origin of Hep Hep, so it is difficult to verify the claims.  But the word, hurrah, is missing completely.  The article from 1832, which appears to be a retelling of the story related in the letter of 1819, seems to have added the word hurrah without reason. 


Dispute Among German-language Scholars

With regards to Hep, Hep, I have not found any pre-1819 source that supports the suggestion that hep, hep, or H.E.P., for that matter, were used during the Crusades.  My personal take on the hep, hep/H.E.P. connection is that it smacks of a grandiose, “heroic” cover-story, calculated to cloak their violent acts in a glow of religiosity.

Several German scholars from the mid-nineteenth century challenged the claims of a connection between hep, hep and H.E.P.  An entry in a general encyclopedia of the arts and sciences stated:

HEP – HEP an insult, used during the recent, tumultuous attacks against Jews; it first occurred in August, 1819, in Wuerzburg, and soon afterward in Frankfurt a. M. and other locations, particularly in Southern Germany.  The suggestion that the word had supposedly been used during the persecution of the Jews in the Middle-Ages is unsubstantiated; and the analysis that Hep is derived from Hierosolyma est perdita, of which the initials form the strange word, is mistaken.  Apparently, Hep means goat in a rural dialect, and was used derisively to characterize the bearded Jews.  But it is still extraordinary that this insult crossed the borders of our own Fatherland to incite trouble in other places such as Copenhagen.  Several governments, including, for example, the Prussian government, have expressly and seriously forbidden the use of the word. (A. G. Hoffmann.)

J. S. Ersch und J. G. Gruber, Allgemeine Encyklopaedie der Wissenschaften und Kuenste, second section H-N, part 5, Heinrich – Hequaesi, Leipzig, Johann Friederich  Steditsch, 1829, page 361.

A later writer agreed that Hep was not derived from H.E.P, but offered a different explanation: 

The sound, huep, or hup, from heben [(lift or lift up)] is used today to drive horses.  The standard call of, “hep, hep!” is nothing other than a form of the same root-word heben, and the suggestion that it came from the abbreviation H.e.p., i.e. Hierosolyma est perdita, is generally viewed today as an absurd and banal myth.  The elliptical chant basically says: get out today or you’ll never get away.

Josua Eiselein, Die Reimhaften, anklingenden und ablautartigen formeln der hochdeutschen Sprache in alter und neuer Zeit, Gesammelt und erlauetert von Professor Eiselein, Bellevue, bei Constanz, F. Fleischer, 1841, pages 15-16.  In English, the phrases, “get up” or “giddy-up,” seem to be close analogies.     

But despite the best efforts of certain scholars to dispel the rumor, the story persisted.  An entry from a German dictionary of idioms and sayings, published in 1880, reads:

Hep, Hep.  This taunt and insult, which is still often heard today, and which stems from the time of the bloody persecution of Jews in the Middle-Ages, is formed from the initials of the Latin sentence: Hierosolyma est perdita (i.e. Jerusalem is lost), which could be read on the banners of many of the Crusaders. (Moltke, Sprachwort, IX, 328).[ii]

Karl Friedrich Wilhelm Wander, Deutsches Sprichwoerter-Lexikon, Ein Hausschatz fuer das deutsche Volk, Volume 5 Weib-Zwug. with Additions and Addenda, Leipzig: F. A. Brockhaus, 1880, column 1425 (Additions and Addenda).

Dispute Among English-language Scholars

During the same period in which German scholars debated whether hep, hep was derived from H.E.P., English-speaking scholars similarly debated whether hip, hip, hurrah! was derived from the same source.  As was the case in Germany, the question was asked, analyzed, dismissed by many, and yet ultimately persisted, despite the lack of actual, historical support.  The false etymology debate in English was further complicated by the extension of the false German etymology (for hep, hep) to the entire phrase, hip, hip, hurrah!, and all of its constituent parts, despite the fact that hurrah!, or its German equivalent, is completely absent from the debate in the source-language of the story.

In 1852, a reader’s question about the origin of hip, hip, hurrah!, appeared in, Notes and Queries: a Medium of Inter-Communication for Literary Men, Artists, Antiquaries, Genealogists, Etc.  The magazine Notes and Queries took the form of a kind of proto-online forum.  Readers posted queries on any subject, and other readers provided answers that appeared in subsequent issues.  Since the magazine had a fairly erudite readership, the questions and answers resulted in a generally, although not exclusively, high-level of discussion.  Debates could last months or years, as replies, subsequent questions and follow-up replies were published.  In 1852, the first in a series of queries and replies on the subject of the etymology of hip, hip, hurrah! appeared.  The question was prompted by a version of the purported hip, hip, hurrah etymology that had been published in The Mirror twenty years earlier:

“Hip, hip, hurrah!” – What was the origin of this bacchanalian exclamation, and what does it mean? I make the inquiry, although I annex an attempt to define it, which was cut from the columns of the Edinburgh Scotsman newspaper some years ago: –

“It is said that ‘Hip, hip, hurrah!’ originated in the Crusades, it being a corruption of H.E.P., the initials of ‘Hierosolyma est perdita” (Jerusalem is lost!), the motto on the banner of Peter the Hermit, whose followers hunted the Jews down with the cry of ‘Hip, hip, hurrah!’”

I have never read elsewhere of such a motto being upon the standards of the first Crusaders.  Had they any other motto than Dieu le volt?  R. S. F., Perth.

Notes and Queries, Volume 6, Number 142, July 17, 1852, page 54. 

The question prompted a series of replies over the next couple of years.  Most of the responses tended to doubt the reputed origin of the phrase:

“Hip, Hip, Hurrah!” (Vol. vii, pp. 595, 633). – The reply suggested by your correspondent R. S. F., that the above exclamation originated in the Crusades, and is a corruption of the initial letters of “Hierosolyma est perdita,” never appeared to me to be very apposite.

Notes and Queries, Volume 8, 1853, page 88.  That same writer, however, offered their own fantastical suggestion; namely that the phrase was based on a line in an old drinking song, “hang up all the hep drinkers.”  A later response pointed out that the actual lyrics were, “hang up all the hop drinkers,” and was intended as a critique of drinking beer instead of spirits.

The most thorough and thoughtful response came from the well-known and respected Irish politician, traveler and member of the Royal Society, James Emerson Tennent:

As to hip, hip! I fear it must remain questionable, whether it be not a mere fanciful conjecture to resolve it into the initials of the war-cry of the Crusaders, “Hierosolyma est perdita!” The authorities, however, seem to establish that it should be written “hep” instead of hip. 

As to hurrah! if I be correct in my idea of it parentage, there are few words still in use which can boast such a remote and widely extended prevalence.  It is one of those interjections in which sound so echoes sense that men seem to have adopted it almost instinctively.  In India and Ceylon, the Mahouts and attendants of the baggage-elephants cheer them on by perpetual repetitions of ur-re, ur-re! The Arabs and camel-drivers in Turkey, Palestine, and Egyt encourage their animals to speed by shouting ar-re, ar-re!  The Moors seem to have carried the custom with them into Spain, where the mules and horses are still driven with the cries of arre (whence the muleteers derive their Spanish appellation of arrieros).  In France, the sportsman excites the hound by shouts of hare, hare! And the waggoner turns his horses by his voice, and the use of the word hurhaut!  In Germany, according to Johnson (in verbo Hurry), “Hurs was a word used by the old Germans in urging their horses to speed.” And to the present day, the herdsmen in Ireland, and parts of Scotland, drive their cattle with shouts of hurrish, hurrish! In the latter country, in fact, to hurry, or to harry, is the popular term descriptive of the predatory habits of the border reivers in plundering and “driving the cattle” of the lowlanders.

The sound is so expressive of excitement and energy, that it seems to have been adopted in all nations as a stimulant in times of commotion; and eventually as a war-cry by the Russians, the English, and almost every people of Europe.  Sir Francis Palgrave, in the passage quoted from his History of Normandy (“N.&Q.” Vol. viii., p. 20), has described the custom of the Normans in raising the country by “the cry of haro,” or haron, upon which all the lieges were bound to join in pursuit of the offender.  This clameur de haron is the origin of the English “hue and cry;” and the word hue itself seems to retain some trace of the prevailing pedigree. . . .

In like manner, our English expressions, to hurry, to harry, and harass a flying enemy, are all instinct with the same impulse, and all traceable to the same root.

Notes and Queries, Volume 8, 1853, page 323.

Despite the doubt expressed by thoughtful, knowledgeable writers in England and Germany, the story would make its way into serious, historical works.  The purported relationship between H.E.P. and Hip, Hip, Hurrah is mentioned, for example, in a footnote in a book about an anti-heretical crusade in Italy during the early fourteenth century. A Historical Memoir of fra Dolcino and His Times (London, 1853).

The story would also find its way into books meant for a more general audience.  The story appeared in a book of etiquette published in 1860. The Perfect Gentleman; or, Etiquette and Eloquence (New York, Dick & Fitzgerald, 1860) included a section with “model speeches for all occasions, with directions on how to deliver them” and “500 toasts and sentiments for everybody, and their proper mode of introduction.”  The story of the origin of hip, hip, hurrah! gets a brief mention in a section about the etiquette of drinking at the dinner table.  The same story was also included in Dick’s Book of Toasts (Dick & Fitzgerald, 1883), in a section about the origin of toasts.

I do not know how popular those books were, but they were published in New York, by a publishing house that appears to have published hundreds of titles aimed at a broad audience.  A brief look at several of their other titles from the same period suggests that their publications targeted a mass audience; they were not a literary publisher with limited appeal: What Shall We Do To-Night? Or, Social Amusements for Evening Parties (1873); Dick’s Recitations and Readings (1876); Snaffles’ Dog (1879); The Art of Dressing Well (1870); The Vegetable Garden, a Complete Guide to the Cultivation of Vegetables (1877).


The phrase, hep, hep, used by anti-Jewish rioters in 1819 appears to have been a common phrase for driving horses or cattle, not derived from the initials H.E.P., which purportedly appeared on banners carried during the First Crusade.  If H.E.P. was actually used during the First Crusade, none of the writers who suggest it as the origin of hep, hep have cited any verifiable sources or other documentation.   The story, itself, sounds more like an attempt to cast religious legitimacy on their otherwise indefensible persecution of Jewish people.

Hip, hip, hurrah! is first attested in the early 1800s, long after the Crusades and several years before the Hep, Hep riots.  It is therefore unlikely that it was derived from a banner carried during the First Crusade (see my earlier post, Three Cheers, Hip, Hip, Hurrah and Tom and Jerry).  The suggestion that hip, hip, hurrah was derived from the initials H.E.P. and/or the phrase, hep, hep, was based on a misstatement (the addition of hurrah) of an unsubstantiated story about the origins of the German phrase, hep, hep; it was not based on an analysis of substantiated historic fact. 

I am not a sociologist, or psychologist, so I cannot easily explain how or why what appears to be a fabrication, based on a misspelling and rewriting of a German phrase, itself the subject of an unsubstantiated etymology, became accepted as fact and continued being repeated for more nearly two-hundred years.  I suppose the explanation provided drama, historical interest, and suggested an association with significant historical events. 

It made good copy – and it was copied well – well into the twenty-first century.

[i] The New Annual Register, or General Repository of History, Politics, and Literature for the Year 1819, London, Thomas M’Lean, 1820, Principal Occurences, &c., page 133.
[ii] This entry was borrowed, in its entirety, from Moltke, Deutscher Sprachwort; Zeitschrift fuer Kunde und Kunst der Sprache, number 229 (volume 9, number 21), November 20, 1875.

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