A Word for Wednesday: Jazz

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‘A mish-mash of colliding egos, conflicting claims and confused memories has led researchers down many false trails while searching for the origins of this American art form, not least where the name came from.’ – Posh and Other Language Myths, Michael Quinion.

This unusual word has fascinated scholars and the public alike since its very gradual and shrouded inception sometime in early twentieth century America. Although its history has been rather well documented, its early use and actual origin is still shrouded in mystery.

The word Jazz continues to be and always has been a very versatile word encompassing a plethora of different meanings and even spellings. Spellings such as Jas, Jass and even Jasz were seen even as late as 1918. These alternate spellings and perhaps the common use of the word might come from the French word ‘jaser’ meaning useless talk (like ‘chatter’ in English perhaps?). French was the language of the Creole and Cajun people of New Orleans in the early twentieth century - might this point to the word’s apparent conception and association with the city.

Wouldn’t you agree that the improvised melodies of Jazz musicians have a ‘jaser’ or ‘chatter’ perhaps similar to the natural syntax of human speech? And after all, it is a very interactive art form where the players ‘speak’ to each other through their instruments.

There are innumerable accounts of the origins of this word and to Michael Quinion, ‘there are more folk etymologies around this word than almost any other’. The pianist, ‘Jelly Roll’ Morton claimed to ‘invent’ Jazz music in 1902 however another influential Jazz pianist Earl Hines insists he was playing his music around Pittsburgh ‘before the word Jazz was even invented’.

The American Dialect Society designated ‘Jazz’ to be the ‘Word of the 20th Century’. An appropriate choice considering the colourful, liberal, exuberant, spiritual and even taboo connotations this word has embraced in the last century.

See the dictionary definition for Jazz on Spellzone

There are hundreds of fascinating accounts, stories and theories surrounding the origins of the word ‘Jazz’ out there to be enjoyed so feel free to post your own findings in the comments below!

Hugh MacDermott, Jazz Pianist

06 Mar 2013
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