OED on "Jazz": all jazzed up

George Thompson george.thompson at NYU.EDU
Tue Dec 8 02:15:13 UTC 2009

         The OED's new entry on jazz supposes that the earliest recorded sense of the word "jazz" is
"      A. noun.
"1. U.S. slang. Energy, excitement, ‘pep’; restlessness; animation, excitability. Now rare."
        This is based on two passages from the Los Angeles Times, in April, 1912 which were turnd up a few years ago while test-driving the LATimes on the Proquest database.  In the OED, these passages are annotated:
"In early use freq. in contexts relating "to baseball; in quots. 1912.1, 1912.2 used attrib. to describe a deceptively difficult and fast throw."
"1912 Los Angeles Times 2 Apr. III. 2/1 Ben's Jazz Curve... ‘I got a new curve this year... I call it the Jazz ball because it wobbles "and you simply can't do anything with it.’ 1912 Los Angeles Times 3 Apr. III. 3/1 Henderson cut the outside corner with a fast "curve also for one strike. Benny calls this his ‘jass’ ball."
        However, the 1912 passages really exemplify another sense of the word: nonsense, foolishness.  Ben Henderson hadn't really invented a new pitch: he was joking.   And if he had a real new pitch, it still wouldn't be an energetic pitch, because it's special quality was that it wobbled.
        The LATimes' full report of Ben's new pitch is 2 paragraphs:
        BEN'S JAZZ CURVE.  "I got a new curve this year," softly murmured Henderson yesterday, "and I'm goin' to pitch one or two of them tomorrow.  I call it the Jazz ball because it wobbles and you simply can't do anything with it."
        As prize fighters who invent new punches are always the first to get their's Ben will probably be lucky if some guy don't hit that new Jazzer ball a mile today.  It is to be hoped that some unintelligent compositor does not spell that the Jag ball.  That's what it must be at that if it wobbles.
        Los Angeles Times, April 2, 1912, part III, pg. 2, col. 1  [Ben was moderately talented, but a thrower, not a pitcher; he was also a drunk, and was out of baseball before he was 30.  Hence the "Jag ball".]
        The Portland, Ore. newspapers didn't know anything about his jazz curve (Ben was pitching for the Portland Beavers).  He had told a Portland reporter about a different new pitch:
        BEN HAS A NEW CURVE CALLED "SNEEZER".  Ben Henderson has a new variety of ball he will use with his famous "splitter."  Ben puts so much pepper in it that when the pill crosses the plate it will make the batter sneeze so violently that he loses control of his bat.  This ought to be a winner.
        Evening Telegram, (Portland, Ore.) March 26, 1912, p. 10, col. 1  (I posted a summary of this story to ADS-L on 19 Sep 2007.)

        The next passage cited in the OED, from 1913, is really the earliest to show the sense of "Energy, excitement, ‘pep’": 1913 Bulletin (San Francisco) 6 Mar. 16 What is the ‘jazz’? Why it's a "little of that ‘old life’, the ‘gin-i-ker’, the ‘pep’, otherwise known as the enthusiasalum.  This is the first of a number of items from 1913 that show the sense of energy or pep, all from the sports pages of the Bulletin, and most by the same reporter, "Scoop" Gleason.

        The sense that covers "Ben's Jazz Curve" is the OED's 3rd (after the sense of "A type of popular music"):
"3. colloq. (chiefly U.S.).   a. Unnecessary, misleading, or excessive talk; nonsense, rubbish. 
  In quot. 1930 (in extended use): unnecessary ornamentation."
        This is dated to 1917 and after.
        However, even if Ben's joke pitch is set aside as ambiguous, the "nonsense" meaning is exemplified by the earliest of the many appearances of the word in 1913:
        E. T. Gleeson, in S.F. Bulletin (Mar. 3): McCarl has been heralded all along the line as a “busher,” but now it develops that this dope is very much to the “jazz.” (HDAS, jazz n. 2.);
as well as by a later instance from the Bulletin of that year:
        If the society for the prevention of cruelty to boobs had been represented at Pavilion Rink last night they would have arrested Riordan and Willis for laying the jazz on too thick.
        San Francisco Bulletin, April 19, 1913, p. 13, cols. 1-3, as cited in Gerald Cohen, "Jazz Revisited" Comments on Etymology, vol. 32, no. 4-5 (December 2002/January, 2003), p. 27.  [with reference to a prizefight between two inept boxers]
        The OED's definition of sense #3 is also too limited; the word covers nonsense in all its manifestations, verbal or otherwise.

My email system is being obstropulous, and I m going to send this off without further tinkering, before it is erased.


George A. Thompson
Author of A Documentary History of "The African Theatre", Northwestern Univ. Pr., 1998, but nothing much lately.

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

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