Summer of Love language: Still compelling after all these years

Linguist Geoff Nunberg says

Linguist Geoff Nunberg says "we’re all fluent speakers of hippie now.”

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(Cross-posted from NPR Opinion.)

If you’re into counterculture kitsch, you might want to check out the nostalgia-themed resort hotel at Walt Disney World in Florida. It features a "Hippy Dippy” swimming pool, surrounded by flower-shaped water jets, peace signs and giant letters that spell out "Peace, Man,” "Out of Sight” and "Can You Dig It?”

Fifty years after the Summer of Love, that’s been the fate of a lot of the language we associate with that era - faded psychedelia, sort of like acid rock and tie-dye, except that nobody ever tries to revive it.

Well, slang is like that: The words come in on one tide and are swept out again on the next. But it’s striking how many words from the hippie era are still with us, from "uptight” to "bummer” to "freak show.” As brief as the moment was, it changed the way we think and talk.

What people call the Summer of Love only lasted for about 10 months in all. Most accounts date its start from Jan. 14, 1967, when 20,000 or 30,000 hippies assembled in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park for the first "Human Be-In.” The Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane performed, Allen Ginsberg chanted a Hindu mantra and Timothy Leary issued the movement’s marching orders: "Turn on, tune in, drop out.”

For a while that spring, it seemed as if love really could conquer all, with a chemical assist. The Haight-Ashbury district teemed with spiritual seekers and acid-heads, Berkeley radicals and old North Beach beatniks. They were trailed by journalists from Harry Reasoner to Hunter S. Thompson, dispatched by the media to explain to Middle America what was going on.

The hippies wafted on a cloud of communal sweetness and bonded over the drugs and the music. And they cemented their fellowship with blissed-out superlatives like "far out,” "out of sight” and the ubiquitous "groovy,” which was actually a bit of warmed-over bebop slang.

Vague and vacuous by design

Observers found the language vague and vacuous, but that was exactly the point. If you’re trying to create a sense of tribal identity, you don’t want words that make your meaning explicit - you want words that presume that that isn’t necessary.

The scene couldn’t have lasted. It was a fleeting eye of calm in a period that Todd Gitlin once described as "a cyclone in a wind tunnel.” And by midsummer it was falling apart. Grass and acid had yielded to heroin and speed, and the Haight was overrun with street people, predators and runaways. Most of the bands and the original hippies decamped for more pastoral settings.

On Oct. 6, 1967 … a group of counterculture purists called the Diggers held a mock funeral carrying a coffin labeled "Hippie, Son of Media,” and brought the Summer of Love to an unofficial end.

It wasn’t the end of the hippie movement - this was two years before Woodstock and Altamont. The word "counterculture” hadn’t even entered the language yet. But by that point, the media had fixed the cartoon image of the hippie as an unwashed acid-head babbling about peace and love. The slang superlatives became banal through overexposure. Within a year, the Monkees were telling their pre-teen fans that "Love is the ultimate trip.”

By 1971, the New York Times’ music critic, Mike Jahn, labeled "groovy” and "where it’s at” as "archaic,” and dismissed "out of sight” as something you’d hear in suburban boutiques. In fact, almost none of the hippies’ positive terms survived the era. The apparent exception was "cool.” But the beats and the hipsters had already made that part of the language a decade earlier.

Hippie lingo’s darker, more enduring side

But the hippies’ language had a darker side, which proved more enduring. Millions of young people were embracing the hedonistic strands of the hippie lifestyle - the long hair, the music and the pot - but rarely in search of enlightenment.

Most had little interest in the "turn on” and "tune in” parts of Leary’s message. But they took to heart the business about dropping out, at least in spirit. They weren’t about to quit their jobs to join a commune. But they came to share the hippies’ disaffection from the split-level conformity of middle-class American culture, and they borrowed the hippies’ words to express its failings: the "hang-ups,” "cop-outs” and "uptightness,” the "plastic people” and "rip-off” artists who "do a number on your head.”

Spiritual journey or unhealthy obsession?

Even the positive words were given new negative twists. When the Grateful Dead first sang "What a long, strange trip it’s been” in 1970, the word suggested a spiritual journey, but now it more often conveys an unwholesome obsession, as in "ego trip,” "power trip” or "guilt trip.

The fact is that we’re all fluent speakers of hippie now. Yet the most persistent single pejorative term to come out of the era is "hippie” itself. Half a century after the Summer of Love, the only honest-to-God hippies left in America are off growing pot in Mendocino County, Calif., or baking artisan bread in Asheville, N.C.

But people are still using "hippie” and "hippie-dippy” as condescending adjectives for a stock sitcom character, somebody who’s into tofu, drives a Prius, lives in a nuclear-free zone and names their children River or Willow --and who has an excessive faith in the power of love. I suppose that says something about the persistence of the original hippies’ vision. Even as remote and diluted as it is, it’s still compelling enough so that people need to evoke it, just so they can put it down.

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