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Where Did 'Jazz,' the Word, Come From? (2018) (wbgo.org)
67 points by tintinnabula 65 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 22 comments

Daniel Cassidy's "How The Irish Invented Slang" (CounterPunch & AK Press, 2007) has an entire chapter dedicated to the etymology of "Jazz" including reprints of articles mentioned in the OP. It includes much of what Porter writes about, but is a much deeper dive. It's well researched and worth the read, but with a grain of salt.

Where Porter's parenthetical (I think “gin-i-ker” means “full of gin.”) is a shot in the dark, Cassidy's polyglot ear for slang catches the Irish "tine caor" (pron. jin-i-kær) meaning "raging fire and lightning," delivering a livelier and more nuanced read. You'll see mention of Scoop Gleeson, but find out he's holed up 40 miles north of SF in Boyes Hot Springs, CA covering the Seals spring training. There may never be a definitive answer to the headline question, but as far as I know, this is likely as close as you'll get.

I have to take some issue with this paragraph:

>But you can also see how Max Roach was wrong when he said they applied the term “jazz” as an insult. This was advertising! “Come see this lively, exciting, JAZZ music!” It would have made no sense if the word were perceived as negative. Did the word have a sexual connotation in some circles, as he claimed? Absolutely: any word for energy eventually has sexual connotations, it seems. But that connotation came later, and in any case it probably wasn’t the thinking of the white folks who named the music. On the other hand, did the word stand in the way of many “respectable” people, white and also religious black Americans, from accepting this new kind of music? Definitely so.

I'm somewhat surprised that a jazz scholar would overlook the possibility that the tropes used to promote black music in the early 20th century could be deeply derogatory. The popularisation of jazz came very shortly after the peak of minstrelsy. Contemporary descriptions of jazz by white authors often segue rapidly from terms like "lively" and "exciting" to "primitive" or "savage". Early jazz sheet music covers were far more likely to feature a racist caricature than the image of a black artist; the marketing of early jazz records is often barely distinguishable from the marketing of minstrel troupes in previous decades. The sexual connotations of the term and the music cannot be separated from the sexual demonisation of black men at that time.


> I'm somewhat surprised that a jazz scholar would overlook the possibility that the tropes used to promote black music in the early 20th century could be deeply derogatory

From the paragraph before the one you quoted, I think the author's claim there is that "jazz" wasn't (at that point) being used to refer particularly to black music, so it follows that it didn't do so derogatorily.

Mandatory quote:

>If you have to ask what jazz is, you'll never know

- Louis Armstrong

Reminds me of asking what punk is, only that one usually elicits a more profane response.

> The word “jazz” probably derives from

> It should be clear by now that all of the popular stories about the origin of the word are wrong

Well that went from "probably" to clarity pretty quickly. (the rest of the article doesn't mention the probable claim again; the only possible reference is an OED quote about "jasm", not about "jazz").

While I'm sure the OED does make a compelling connection between "jazz" and "jasm", it seems a bit disorganised for the article not to reference this directly (presuming that's the author's source).

The tone is also so odd: it's as if it was written purely as a rebuttal to some pub debate that the author had been particularly worked up about, zealous exclamation-marks throughout.

> The Oxford English Dictionary, the most reliable and complete record of the English language, traces “jasm” back to at least 1860: J. G. Holland Miss Gilbert's Career xix. 350 ‘She's just like her mother... Oh! she's just as full of jasm!’.. ‘Now tell me what “jasm” is.’..

And "-asm" is such an unusual word ending in English, it makes me wonder how "jasm" itself came about? (If I didn't know any better, seeing the word for the first time I'd never guess it was supposed to be English.)

Running a regex on the dictionary, there are only a handful of other words ending in it -- mostly "sarcasm", "orgasm", "chasm", "spasm", and various scientific terms ending in "plasm" (e.g. "nucleoplasm").

Those -asm words all have Greek origins (orgasmos, khasma, phantasma, etc. The words jasm and jism appear to be specific to US English; perhaps originating from a creole language?

"enthusiasm" is another one

Which has an interesting etymology. Also from Greek, but the original root word is theos, "god", from which is derived enthous, "possessed by god", and further enthousiasmos, "being possessed by god", or less literally "being inspired".

The story I heard when I was in music school was that the word jazz came from the days of slavery. It was intended as a coded way to let others know that there would be prayers and music that evening (e.g. Jass Tonight) but the 'S' would be flipped around. The word stood for "Jesus Amen Save our Souls".

Evan Morris, author of "The Word Detective" column that used to run in papers and alt weeklies, used to perennially comment that acronyms in English were quite rare until roughly WW1-WW2, and as such etymologies involving them ("to insure promptness", "port out starboard home", etc.) are virtually always false.

More to the point, TFA lays out various evidence why this particular theory is unlikely.

> "to insure promptness"

As in tipping service? It'd be ensure anyway, surely?

> As in tipping service?

The same. For whatever reason false etymologies based on acronyms abound, with "tip" and "posh" being among the better-known. There's also "for unlawful carnal knowledge" for fuck, "gentlemen only ladies forbidden" for golf, "constable on patrol" for cop, etc. I've even heard people claim rap derives from "rhythm and poetry". But basically they're all bunk, apart from words of quite recent coinage.

(I might add that tons of false etymologies without acronyms float around as well - "mind your Ps and Qs" being related to pints and quarts, stuff like that. Morris used to blame tour guides as being the worst culprits of keeping such things alive.)

Tip is old enough (1755) that they where the same word.

The cynic would be mostly right, at least for much of the history of English, as for hundreds of years insure and ensure were simply spelling variants, and had no more difference between them than theatre and theater.

However, in the middle of the 19th century some began to find fault with this, and proposed assigning meanings to ensure, insure, and assure in more orderly fashion.


PS: Tip is unlikely to have started as an acronym in either case.

"Port Out, Starboard Home" by Michael Quinion is a nice book about 'folk etymologies' that covers these and many more. He gives the real origin where it's known.

Another example is "fuck" which probably doesn't stand for "for unlawful carnal knowledge.[0]"


As the article mention, everyone have their favorite theory. This one sounds particularly unbelievable though. "Jesus Amen Save our Souls" is not even a meaningful sentence. So it is likely a backronym from JASS rather than the other way around.

"reality may avoid the obligation to be interesting, but hypotheses may not".

It's a good story, let it live.

It's not a good story. Most slaves weren't even allowed to read or write, and flipping 's' to 'z' is a ridiculous "code."

I would immediately jump to unbelieving due to anecdotal nature of this claim but these are kinds of stories that tend to be propagated through stories told

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