"Jazz Means Happy and Loose Like" (1917)

Benjamin Zimmer bgzimmer at BABEL.LING.UPENN.EDU
Mon Dec 3 20:44:39 UTC 2007

On Dec 3, 2007 3:05 PM, Arnold M. Zwicky <zwicky at csli.stanford.edu> wrote:
> On Dec 3, 2007, at 11:59 AM, John Baker wrote:
> >        I am skeptical of the Wikipedia account, as far as "Rastus" is
> > concerned.  A Westlaw search shows that every recorded example of
> > "Rastus" in reported legal cases before 1890 refers to Rastus Ransom, a
> > prominent New York City lawyer, who likely was not black (newspaper
> > articles of the period make no reference to his race, which they
> > presumably would have if he had been black).  In contrast, names such as
> > "Sambo" and "Cuffy" are found.  The available evidence suggests to me
> > that the association of "Rastus" with blacks (i) did not occur in
> > popular culture until the late 19th century and (ii) never had any
> > factual basis.
> excellent points.  but how did whites fix on "Rastus"?

Well, it could have sounded *like* a typical (ex-)slave name to white
observers without it actually having ever been one. Perhaps there was
something stereotypical about shortened forms of Biblical names --
Wilson mentioned "Zek'l" as well.

Once Rastus became a stock character, e.g., as part of the Rastus and
Liza cycle (Alan Dundes calls this "perhaps the most vicious and
widespread white anti-Negro joke cycle" in _Mother Wit from the
Laughing Barrel_), then the fixation on the name became

--Ben Zimmer

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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