The Sanas, Jazz, Jazz and Teas

Cohen, Gerald Leonard gcohen at UMR.EDU
Sat Jan 29 16:27:34 UTC 2005

   A few thoughts on the recent "jazz" discussion:

1) A bibliographic reference is my compilation (with due credit given)  "_Jazz_ Revisited: On The Origin Of The Term--Draft #2" in: Comments on Etymology, vol. 32, no 4-5 (Dec.2002/Jan. 2003, 91 pp. --- Draft #3 will appear sometime in the next 12 months incorporating the later disicussion.

2) In 1913, "jazz" was heralded as a new word which had just entered the language, and the first attestations were in connection with baseball. There were none at this time--none at all--in reference to music. As for the sexual use of "jazz," this must have come some time after 1913.  Even if the worldly-wise sports writers of the San Francisco Bulletin were unaware of the sexual meaning of "jazz" (had it existed then), someone would have certainly tapped them on the shoulder to clue them in. The term could not have been used repeatedly as it was in the 1913 baseball columns if it had a sexual meaning at that time.

3) As for "jazz" referring to a type of music in New Orleans prior to 1913, there are no contemporary attestations of this--none, zip, nada.

4) Daniel Cassidy attaches importance to the term "jazz" being first used by Irishmen (Gleeson, Slattery); Slattery reportedly first heard it as an incantation in a crapshooting game he happened to witness. But Gleeson's Irish background had absolutely nothing to do with his acquiring and then using the term.  And Slattery apparently didn't use the term in 1913 beyond telling Gleeson the story about the crapshooting game. Also, the crapshooters might have been Irish, but they just as plausibly could have been African-American.

5) The etymology of "jazz" is still open for discussion. I.e., if the crapshooting story is correct (and I find it credible; all the rest of Gleeson's 1938 account--except for one minor detail--is validated in the 1913 newspapers), the crapshooting "jazz" (in: "Come on, the old jazz!") might plausibly derive from now obsolete "jasm" (energy, force). The incantation would then have meant roughly "May the force be with me."

6) So bringing Irish into the picture adds nothing to what we already know and is based on no evidence other than a possible similarity in sound (how close?) between "jazz" and Irish teas (sp.?).

7) A remaining point of uncertainty concerns the very few attestations of "jazz" in 1912, so named by Portland pitcher Ben Henderson because (according to Henderson), his jazz pitch "wobbles". My guess (and it is only that) is that it is somehow connected with "jag" (intoxication; "jags" in plural?).  Now, if some similar-sounding Irish word meaning "wobble" could be found, maybe an Irish connection would be worthy of further consideration here.

Gerald Cohen

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