Jazz from Teas

Douglas G. Wilson douglas at NB.NET
Tue Sep 18 00:09:17 UTC 2007

>I guess I'm basically prejudiced against Cassidy's suggestion
>because other suggestions he has made consistently have not made
>sense.  However, while I haven't read his book, my understanding is
>that his treatment of jazz at least takes the known history of jazz
>as a West Coast slang term into account, and even a blind pig
>occasionally finds an acorn.

That's about how I see it too.

>Rigter seems unaware of the West Coast history of the term, instead
>seeking a New Orleans etymology, and of course he did not have the
>benefit of HDAS.  At this point I would characterize his work as a
>"false lead."  My question is whether Cassidy's suggestion likewise
>should be considered a "false lead," or instead mentioned as a
>possible though less likely etymology.

The arguments (as I see them, slightly simplified) in favor of Cassidy's story:

1. There is an Irish word which sounds something like "jazz".
2. One can make some semantic connection between the words.
3. There were some Irish-speakers around when "jazz" appeared.

I can make exactly comparable arguments for Rigter's derivation from
"chasse", or for the derivation from French "jaser":

1. There is a French word which sounds something like "jazz".
2. One can make some semantic connection between the words.
3. There were some French-speakers around when "jazz" appeared.

These arguments will not be vitiated by slight changes in the known
word history; e.g., if a newly found citation were to show a word
"jazz" meaning "pep" used in (say) Cincinnati in 1911, the above
arguments could still be made, supporting the Irish or French
derivation of one's choice.

But these are only weak plausibility arguments. Any word (especially
any short word) of unknown etymology will have a variety of more and
less 'plausible' candidate etyma, some native, others in various
foreign languages.

Until recently, researchers (such as Tamony or Funk) were generally
unable to go past the 'plausibility argument' stage. Now we're doing
a little better and one can search large digitized archives to see
whether there is any real evidence for (or against) one's casual
hypothesis. Has Cassidy done this for "jazz"? Others have, and
(AFAIK) without finding any 'paper trail' to support an Irish
etymology ... or a French one.

Perhaps some of the savants can correct or improve my naive concepts.

-- Doug Wilson

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