Q&A: Where does ‘vibe’ come from?

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we're vibing…

Q: Hi AWC, can we talk about vibes?

A: Good ones?

Q: Good, bad, whatever. I just hear lots of young people these days describing something using “it’s a vibe”.

A: Ah yes, the youth of today – a constant delight.

Q: I know right?

A: So yeah, the phrase “it’s a vibe” (also a 2017 rap song by 2 Chainz and his buddies Ty Dolla Sign, Trey Songz and Jhené Aiko) is typically used to describe something or someplace positive. Of course, the noun “vibe” is not a new thing. Macquarie Dictionary defines it as colloquial, “a dominant quality, mood, or atmosphere”.

Q: So it obviously came from “vibration”, right?

A: Well, sort of. Long before batteries were invented, the word “vibration” turned up in English – around the 1650s – from Latin “vibratio” or “vibrare” meaning “to shake, brandish or set in tremulous motion”.

Q: That’s a rather shaky origin story.

A: Hahaha. Nice. Then, the Italian word “vibrato” was introduced in the 1860s to describe a tone that oscillates slightly in pitch, famously used by opera singers while holding a note. 

Q: Wait, are we finished already?

A: Um no. Why?

Q: Oh sorry, it’s just that the fat lady was singing and I assumed…

A: Uh huh. Anyway, well into the 20th century, “vibrations” remained just a physical or audio phenomenon – with none of the emotion we assign them today.

Q: When did this change?

A: It started in the 1920s, with the invention of the vibraphone.

Q: The what now?

A: It was also known as the vibraharp – a percussion instrument that looks like a large xylophone, yet has metal tubes hanging below that vibrate when you hit the bars on top. It played a big role in the emergence of the jazz sound.

Q: What does this have to do with vibes? 

A: Good question. By 1940, this instrument became commonly known as the “vibes” and by the 1960s, this musical vibe came to be slang for an “instinctive feeling”. It was no doubt helped in popularity by the Beach Boys and their 1966 song, Good Vibrations

Q: That gives me excitations.

A: Indeed. And from this time on, if you weren't sure about something, you’d get “bad vibes” about it. Conversely, “good vibes” were in ready supply, alongside peace and love. 

Q: And drugs.

A: No comment.

Q: What about the verb?

A: You know you’ve really made it as a noun when people start using you as a verb (just ask Google). In this case, it took almost no time at all for people to start to “vibe with the sound of a band”. Merriam-Webster lists it as a verb from 1971.

Q: And when did EVERYTHING become a vibe?

A: Haha, well, words can go in and out of fashion. “Vibe” however has managed to maintain its vibe through the decades since – helping to define everything from a “retro vibe” to a “sinister vibe” and even legal matters as seen in the infamous courtroom scene from 1997’s The Castle. Effectively, it’s synonymous with a feeling or mood.

Q: But it seems far more common right now, yeah?

A: Sure, young people in recent years have been embracing the verb and noun in new ways – from “good vibes only” affirmations to the plural-dropping phrase, “it’s a vibe”. And while the verb “vibing” has been around on Urban Dictionary for more than 10 years, it has seen an explosion of entries since 2019.

Q: So what exactly defines something as having “a vibe”?

A: That’s the elusive mystery. Writer and rave-aficionado Hilary Agro sums it up well: Pulling apart the concept of ‘vibe’ feels like deconstructing a joke – talking about it explicitly ruins what makes it special; its very existence is made of an implicit shared understanding of a subjective experience.”

Q: So the first rule of Vibe Club is you don’t talk about Vibe Club?

A: Basically, yes.

Q: I feel so old. But I’m pretty sure we’ve been “vibing” on the English language today, yeah?

A: We sure have, but shhhh, remove those quote marks or the young people will start laughing at us.

Q: It’s definitely a vibe. Let’s sneak out before they spot us…

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