Tuesday, June 8, 2010

if you're reading this, you may already be a hippy

To those who read both my blogs (hi Carla!): this one is getting cross-posted because it overlaps the topic scope for both of them.

The meanings of words shift all the time. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it can be annoying if you enjoyed using a word in its previous sense and now can’t. I know of one grandmother who got pretty upset when her grandson’s parents told her she could not teach her grandson to call a cat by saying, “Here, pussy pussy.” You understand.

Things float the other way, too. Things that had one label stamped on them can have an entirely different one stamped on them once the previous one fades. This can be good, bad, or indifferent, but it can be very annoying if the new label doesn’t quite describe the original thing as well as the old label did. Perceptions change, practices change, and eventually the thing itself is in danger of changing.

One word that illustrates this is hippy.

Hippy comes from “hip,” as in “with it.” It grew to encompass a lot of things — do some Google searches if no ready stereotypes come to mind. It also grew to encompass a lot of things that pre-date its inception as a word.

There’s a nice point in a Philip K. Dick short story (whose title I am too lazy to look up) where one character assumes another is a hippy because he has a beard. The third character who has introduced them later explains that the “hippy” is actually a conservative — he has a beard because he has a nasty case of barber’s rash.

Hippy-ism (hippiness?) spread over all sorts of things that became associated with it, whether they were exclusively for hippies or not. Things like pacifism, or home schooling, or growing your own food, or doing things by hand. People forget that there were conscientious objectors in both world wars, that community schools are a relatively new innovation, that the working classes/peasants always grew their own food whether they were “farmers” or not, that doing things by hand was once a sign of thrift and quality products rather than a sign of “dropping out.”

When people ask about my parents and/or my childhood, they often comment that my family must be hippies. We had two big vegetable patches and a small orchard, and lived in a house my dad and his brother built. My mum sewed a lot of the clothes I wore. My brothers and I had wooden toys our grandfather made us. And yeah, politically we often (but not always) wind up on the pacifists’ side.

A quick glance at some family photos, plus some extra contextual information, shows how wrong that perception is. My mum worked at an office and was (still is) a twinset-with-pearls type. My dad was a fan of Elvis and the Rat Pack. Besides, long hair can get in the way when you work in construction. The garden? The sewing? The wooden toys? Both my parents were avid gardeners who didn’t have a lot of money when I was a kid — growing veggies was fun and practical. Same thing with my mum and her sewing. And of course my grandfather made us wooden toys — he was professionally trained as a finishing carpenter and worked as one almost his entire career. The pacifism isn’t exactly unusual in people who grew up in countries that have been occupied during wartime, and both sides of my family experienced that.

Over here in North America, safe insulated attacked-twice-in-100-years-but-not-invaded North America, all those things, those activities, add up to being a hippy, at least for those who don’t know any better. An entire ethic of thrift, practicality, and simple do-it-yourself-ness has been buried under a catchword.

It goes further than that. Are you a woman who doesn’t remove her leg hair, pit hair, or (ahem) hair in other places? Get ready to be called a granola-cruncher, even if (like the character in the PK Dick story with the barber’s rash) it’s because you have sensitive skin. Actually, with the hysteria aimed at those with pubic hair these days, it might be something worse than “granola-cruncher” if you happen to be wearing a bathing suit at the time.

What if you make an effort to eat less processed food, or if you like making basics for yourself like bread, jam, or soup stock?

What if you prefer to make your own music (or listen to your friends make some) instead of buying whatever is at the top of the list on iTunes this week?

It seems to me that it doesn’t take much these days to be a nonconformist. The weird thing is that there are an awful lot of people being nonconformist in these things, or myriad other things.
So are we all hippies now? Or is it time to do a collective semantic readjustment and admit that the label is not only inadequate and misleading, but also passé?

1 comment:

  1. speaking of "here pussy pussy" ... in Swedish, "puss" means "kiss" and the Swedes say it with casual affection. M says it to me when we're being quiet or when I say something he likes, but he also says it to his mom at the end of a phonecall. My my mom shouts "puss puss puss" when she puts the cat food out on the step, to alert the kitties that it's meal time. M thinks that's funny "your Mom keeps saying 'puss'!"

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