English of subcultures

Peace and love, man: confessions of an ex-hippie

Before writing this post I dug out my dog-eared copy of the BIT Guide: Overland to India and Beyond, dated April 1972. Long before the days of Lonely Planet, this was the only travel guide available for anyone embarking on the ‘hippie trail‘. Travelling from Europe to India overland could be somewhat hazardous nowadays, but in the early 1970s the Trail was a popular post-university adventure favoured by anyone who might have been described as a hippie. (On the whole people didn’t define themselves as hippies – the label was given by others.) BIT was (in the spirit of the times) a free information service, and its Guide was full of useful advice about transport options, places to stay, visas, vaccinations and everything else you needed to know, as well as warnings about places to avoid. Though the word crowd-sourcing hadn’t been invented, the Guide included numerous contributions from people who had made the journey already. One of my favourites (about a city in the far east of Iran) reads: ‘Locals in Meshad seemed pretty uncool: we got stoned there – with stones!’

True to the hippie ‘philosophy’, which involved a rejection of materialism, conventional values and dress, and of course war (the Vietnam War was at its height), the Guide opens with a reflection on life in the West:

The European trip [=way of life] is money, work, responsibility, authority and work, and anyone who feels these are not worth the hangs [=problems] should be somewhere else.

It then suggests an alternative: go East! With its frequent references to cats and chicks (men and women), it all feels a bit quaint now, and this set me wondering how much of the vocabulary of that era (roughly, 1965–1975) is still in use today. Some words survive, but have changed their meaning: rapping was just a general word for ‘talking’ before it acquired its more specialised musical sense, while straight meant ‘not a hippie’ rather than ‘not gay’. The BIT Guide – really just a collection of about 30 typed pages stapled together – was sold for what was described on its cover as a ‘rip-off price’ of 50 pence (quite expensive at the time, but they used the money to fund their other activities). Rip-off  was a newish word in 1972 (it was coined in the late 1960s), and is still very much alive. But not all of the hippie lexicon has survived so well. It’s a long time since I heard anyone say let’s split (=let’s go) or refer to money as bread. If you sold out (that one is still around) and embraced the materialist lifestyle, you would be derided as a breadhead, the worst possible insult. To express approval, however, two of the most popular formulae were far out! and too much!, usually followed by man, an all-purpose term of address. A few of my oldest male friends (including one who’s now a judge) still address me in this way, but this doesn’t really count as current English.

While on the subject of man, I was struck, when reading Keith Richards’ autobiography, by the pervasively sexist tone: young women were always referred to as chicks (or even worse, bitches). Apparently no-one has tried to bring old Keith up to date, but it must be admitted that his language is typical of the hippie era. Sexism was barely recognised as an issue then (even the word sexist only dates back to 1968), so we shouldn’t feel too nostalgic.

But as the global economy looks shaky, there are signs that some people are questioning the consumerism of the last 30 years. Perhaps the hippie message will come back into fashion – which would be far out!

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Michael Rundell


  • Far out, man. I have fond memories of hippies from growing up in the 1970s (probably better memories than the hippies themselves have, but that’s another story) but they became a real enemy for those involved in punk and post-punk music who saw them as the epitome of all that was wrong with the music and cultural scene of the late 1970s.

    It’s a shame really, as hippie values were often pretty sound ones and not that far apart from those of punks in many ways.

    Was “the man” and the concept of “sticking it to the man” around back in the hippie days, Michael or has this been a more recent development?

  • Hey, I found this post very interesting. I was drawn in by the link to this blog and how it said it was “A must for anyone with an interest in the changing face of language.” I am a student at Chapman University and have created a blog for a class I am currently enrolled in. I would value your input on my blog. I talk about how people interact with each other daily is changing. Have a look and http://andretart.wordpress.com/ Thanks!

  • Dan: i think the use of ‘man’ you refer to is probably more recent. One of the countless definitions of ‘man’ in the Urban Dictionary (not recommended) says: ‘An unseen political force which watches and oppresses everyday people.’ Is that close to the idea you’re referring to? In the late sixties (as well as being a general term of address for males) ‘the man’ or ‘your man’ was also a drug dealer (as in the Velvet Underground song ‘I’m waiting for my man’). Hope that helps!

  • Just a couple of notes: “Man” in hippie parlance began as the equivalent of today’s “Dude”, as in “Hey man, let’s smoke this shit.” Like many hippie expressions and terms, it originated with the beatniks of the late 1940s and 1950s. However, its use changed in the manner outlined by Michael Rundell, above. The evolution of language is fascinating, indeed.

    You might be interested in my new book, PROMISED LANDS Growing Up Absurd in the 1950s and ’60s. It’s a hippie memoir about life in small town Ontario and the story of my travels in Europe and the Middle East 1966-70. Readers Reviews on Amazon are all 5-star.

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