Does jazz "ax(e)" derive from jazz "chops"?

George Thompson george.thompson at NYU.EDU
Mon Oct 7 16:46:15 UTC 2002

I had always supposed that in jazz, an "ax" = "instument" because an ax was a tool that was swung when used.


George A. Thompson
Author of A Documentary History of "The African
Theatre", Northwestern Univ. Pr., 1998.

----- Original Message -----
From: Gerald Cohen <gcohen at UMR.EDU>
Date: Sunday, October 6, 2002 11:24 am
Subject: Does jazz "ax(e)" derive from jazz "chops"?

>    I'm preparing an article on slang "ax(e)" (= musical instrument),
> with full gratitude and credit to all the ads-l contributors to this
> topic of two years ago; I'll also contact each one individually.
>    But I have one main point of uncertainty: whether to connect this
> "ax(e)" with slang "chops" (jazz term denoting musical ability or
> skill). This "chops" seems readily derivable from jazz "chops" (= "a
> trumpet player's strength of embouchure"--HDAS), which in turn
> derives from "chops" (= mouth or lips).
> So perhaps "ax(e)" (= musical instrument) derived from the differing
> meanings of "chops": 1) mouth; skill in playing e.g., a trumpet, 2)
> strikes with an axe.
>    The very knowledgeable members of this list often see things that
> I miss.  The above semantic hypothesis (axe as something one chops
> with) seems plausible to me, but am I perhaps missing something here?
> The inclusion of the "chops" discussion is just an addendum to the
> "ax(e)" treatment and could easily be removed if it presents problems.
>    For ready access I present HDAS information after my signoff.
> Gerald Cohen
> HDAS says of ax(e) meaning #4: "sense development unknown; perh.
> sugg. by _sax_; perhaps infl. by _swing_. Jazz: a musical instrument,
> esp. one on which jazz or rock music is played, as a saxophone,
> trumpet, or guitar."
> The first attestation cited is from 1955.
>   Meanwhile, HDAS says of _chops_:
> meaning #1a: "Now esp. Black English: the mouth or lips;..." -- first
> attestation cited: 1589.
>  #2a: "Jazz. a trumpet player's strength of embouchure" -- first
> attestation cited: 1947.
> #2b. "Orig. Jazz: musical ability or skill; (hence) skill or ability
> of any sort." -- first attestation cited: 1968.

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