More "jazz" etymythology

Ben Zimmer bgzimmer at BABEL.LING.UPENN.EDU
Sat Mar 30 15:24:24 UTC 2013

>From Bruce Price, on The Week:

**Jazz was sexual slang before it was music. "Jas" was a Creole brothel
where jezebels worked. Music for the clients became known as "Jas music",
sometimes "Jass music." When the word "Jass" was printed on posters, the
letter "J" was sometimes crossed out for a joke. Promoters knew "ass music"
was offensive, so the spelling moved from "Jass" to "Jazz", hence "Jazz

This is a variant on the unsubstantiated lore given here:

Storyville is often given credit with giving the name to jazz. It seems the
women of the brothels, in an effort to counter the smells of the swampy
city, would wear Jasmine perfume. When one left the company of the lady
smelling of jasmine, one was said to be “jassed.” When musicians at the
brothels would make their music sexy to inspire customers, they were said
to have “jassed,” or sexed, up the music. Brothel owners would advertise
their musicians with signs that would announce “Live Jass.” When
mischievous children would come along and wipe off the “j,” owners decided
to change the “s”’s to “z”’s in an effort not to offend people.

I see The Week's version of events has been added to the Wikipedia page ( -- though I'm sure John Baker
or another vigilant Wikipedian will revise it soon enough.


Ben Zimmer

The American Dialect Society -

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