We aren’t very kind to our pop-lingo, embracing and rejecting buzzwords as quickly as the fads that spawned them. Contrast, for example, the chummy, adorable “geek” with the cringe-worthy “dweeb”. Both words describe a highly intelligent but socially inept individual; both provide a satisfying phonological gut punch. Yet “dweeb” dredges up some 870,000 insult-laden results on Google, while “geek” gets over 140 million mostly positive ones. What accounts for such different treatment of words born in the same era? The wisdom of Urban Dictionary ascribes their forking paths to the fact that dweebs, by vague definition, lack the confidence and passion of nerds. The nerd or geek may pursue cryptic hobbies, but he remains well-loved due to the gusto with which he barrels forward. Perhaps a disregard for public opinion accounts for the popularity of one term over the other.
While “dweeb” has yet to reverse its fortune, the much-maligned “hipster” has ridden a rollercoaster of connotations. A decade after its resurgence, it seems to be referenced online in one of the following ways:
- In the pejorative: “I’m so tired of these hipster douchebags – skinny jeans don’t look good on anyone.”
- For the sake of apophasis: “None of that hipster trash for me, thank you very much.”
- As documented evidence of a quaint phenomenon: “What’s the deal with this influx of Asian hipster chicks in ripped biker shorts?”
- As penitence for past sins: “I’m a reformed hipster.”
- As an excuse to show off while allaying fears of pretension: “I wore flannel before Nirvana, I said, taking off my hipster glasses.”
While the term still enjoys a measure of esteem among its most loyal disciples, its status as a self-descriptor has waned. To look at what factors make or keep a word negative, we can circle back to the beatniks, originators of yet another of our buzzwords. As outlined by Anatole Broyard and Norman Mailer, the hipsters of the first half of the 20th century were hedonists because they were nihilists. In his 1957 essay “The White Negro”, Mailer presents hipsters as the white middle class that relates to the African-American experience; feeling disenfranchised, marginalized, existential, and jaded, they choose to live in the haughty self-indulgence of the present.
The term resurfaced in the erstwhile years of the 21st century, in the Williamsburg neighborhood of New York City. The image of the vintage-clad, Pabst-swigging, Parliament-smoking archetype took shape in The Hipster Handbook. Published in 2003, the detailed guide chiseled a shape for the dispersed movement of youth that railed against convention from the comfort of an upper-middle-class upbringing.
So what happened in the span of ten years to sink the vainglory of self-describing as a hipster? New York Magazine ran an essay in 2010 that posited hipsterdom’s decline as emblematic of a renewed desire to actually care about the surrounding world. Environmentally-conscious young people that dug their hands in the dirt and offered up positive solutions cast a sickly pallor on the vapid hipster that chose to see bleakness rather than a world of possibility. Now, the call for clean motives, sincere drive, and personal responsibility for the state of the planet has knocked disaffectedness from its pedestal. The pervasive image of hipsters as hangers-on – not the true originators of valuable ideas – may plunge the word to an early grave.