Where Did ‘Jazz,’ the Word, Come From?

When it comes to the origin of the word “jazz,” it seems that each person simply believes what she or he wants to.

Some would like the word to come from Africa, so they firmly believe the stories that support that. Others want it to be an African-American word, so they look for that. The venerable saxophonist, composer and educator Archie Shepp lived in Paris for many years, and he has not the slightest doubt that “jazz” is a French word. But professional linguists (scholars of languages and their history), etymologists (researchers of word origins) and lexicographers (dictionary researchers) have been on the case for decades, and the real story is far less simple. Let’s take a look.

The word “jazz” probably derives from the slang word “jasm,”which originally meant energy, vitality, spirit, pep. The Oxford English Dictionary, the most reliable and complete record of the English language, traces “jasm” back to at least 1860:

J. G. Holland Miss Gilbert’s Career xix. 350 ‘She’s just like her mother… Oh! she’s just as full of jasm!’.. ‘Now tell me what “jasm” is.’.. ‘If you’ll take thunder and lightening, and a steamboat and a buzz-saw, and mix ’em up, and put ’em into a woman, that’s jasm.’

Note the discussion of what “jasm,” means, which suggests that it was fairly new, not in widespread use at the time. Some have suggested that it originated as a variant of “gism,” which has the same meaning and can be traced back a little further, to 1842. By the end of the 1800s, “gism” meant not only “vitality” but also “virility,” leading to the word being used as slang for “semen.”

But — and this is significant — although a similar evolution happened to the word “jazz,” which became slang for the act of sex, that did not happen until 1918 at the earliest. That is, the sexual connotation was not part of the origin of the word, but something added later. According to the etymologist Professor Gerald Cohen, the leading researcher of the word “jazz” (and author of a study summarizing his work to date; see below), it’s not even certain that “gism” and “jasm” are related. The research is still ongoing, and it’s quite possible that they are two independent words. In short, “jazz” probably comes from “jasm,” and let’s leave “gism” out of it.

“Jazz” seems to have originated among white Americans, and the earliest printed uses are in California baseball writing, where it means “lively, energetic.”  (The word still carries this meaning, as in “Let’s jazz this up!”) The earliest known usage occurs on April 2, 1912, in an article discovered by researcher George A. Thompson, and sent to me courtesy of Dr. Cohen.

Read more: WBGO

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