Ben Zimmer over at Word Routes has a post on one of the most disputed word histories ever, that of jazz. Was it first used for baseball, music, or something else? In San Francisco, New Orleans, or elsewhere? The earliest known use of the word supports the baseball/Bay Area theory: “Ben Henderson, a pitcher for the Portland Beavers (another Pacific Coast League team), dubbed a lively pitch his ‘jazz ball,’ according to the Los Angeles Times of April 2, 1912.” It was popularized by San Francisco Bulletin sportswriter E.T. “Scoop” Gleeson, who explained the term in a March 6, 1913 report from the spring training camp of the San Francisco Seals:

What is the “jazz”? Why, it’s a little of that “old life,” the “gin-i-ker,” the “pep,” otherwise known as enthusiasalum. A grain of “jazz” and you feel like going out and eating your way through Twin Peaks. It’s that spirit which makes ordinary ball players step around like Lajoies and Cobbs.

The earliest known New Orleans reference had been from the June 20, 1918 Times-Picayune, but Ben has turned up an earlier one, from Nov. 14, 1916: “The writer takes the opportunity to give New Orleans the proper credit for the origination of ‘jas bands’: ‘Any one ever having frequented the “tango belt” of New Orleans knows that the real home of the “jas bands” is right here.'” (You can see a reproduction of the article at Ben’s post.) So for now, the credit for the term rests with “the peppy baseball players of San Francisco,” but who knows what further archival research will turn up? Stay tuned!

Incidentally, “Lajoie” is Nap Lajoie, whose French-Canadian name is properly pronounced LAZH-away (i.e., that’s how he himself and those who knew him said it); I don’t understand why Wikipedia gives the pronunciation as “[la-ZHWAH, or often la-ZHWAY, per the Canadian French pronunciation; or, as he himself usually pronounced it, LAJ-a-way].” Surely the order should be reversed; people who say “la-ZHWAH” know French better than baseball history.


  1. What about that ‘Twin Peaks’ reference? Peculiar, to say the least. There’s a Twin Peaks in the SF area, but I don’t think of it as edible.

  2. I take it to mean “eating in the many restaurants o the Twin Peaks district, more or less systematically”.

  3. I took it as John Cowan did.

  4. Ah. My career choice of ‘scientist’ rather than ‘literary critic’ is proved correct, once again.

  5. I used to live on Twin Peaks in SF (the brokers called it “Upper Haight”).

  6. My favorite folk etymology is that it is a re-analysis from Jezebel because only fallen women would frequent the kind of places where that “that kind” of music was played. You had “Jeze-belle” and “Jeze-beau”, so that left “jez” free to become “jazz”.

  7. marie-lucie says

    Nap Lajoie may have been of French Canadian origin but he was probably not raised in French Canada, otherwise he would not have added an extra “a” (= schwa) to his name, or pronounced the “j” as English “j” rather than “zh”.
    The “French Canadian” pronunciation is not an innovation peculiar to Canada but a continuation of the older French pronunciation. Two or three centuries ago, “way” was general in French (and is still found in some rural areas of Northern France), and “wah” was at first a stigmatized lower-class Parisian pronunciation.

  8. Were there a lot of restaurants in Twin Peaks in 1912? That’s basically a residential neighborhood, not a place you’d typically head off to for dinner. I understood the writer to mean it literally – so full of energy you could carve through a mountain.

  9. Nap Lajoie may have been of French Canadian origin but he was probably not raised in French Canada
    He wasn’t; as the linked Wikipedia article says,he was “of French Canadian descent from Woonsocket, Rhode Island.”
    otherwise he would not have … pronounced the “j” as English “j” rather than “zh”.
    He didn’t, or at least I’ve never heard any recordings of ballplayers from the time saying it that way—it’s “LAZH-away” (as I rendered it) or the more Americanized “LASH-away.”

  10. rootlesscosmo says

    I think Vanya’s reading of “Twin Peaks” is more plausible. That area of San Francisco was barely developed at all until after the second world war and is still solidly residential. (“Upper Haight” these days generally means Haight between Buena Vista Park and Stanyan St.; “Lower Haight” is the stretch between Divisadero and Fillmore.)

  11. Well, I know nothing about San Francisco except what I picked up from reading Hammett and watching Hitchcock; with the added information provided by Those Who Know, I agree that vanya’s reading makes sense.

  12. marie-lucie says

    LH: (Lajoie) it’s “LAZH-away” (as I rendered it) or the more Americanized “LASH-away.”
    Then where does this fit in:
    …or, as he himself usually pronounced it, LAJ-a-way].” ?

  13. I know this will come as a shock, but I suspect Wikipedia is wrong.

  14. marie-lucie says

    Come as a shock, did you say?

  15. geezz! it must be really something to have it like this. Wow First Aid Guide

  16. I was asked today at work if hashish came from Turkey. Not sure why sitting on a beach in Egypt to solve a visa expiration problem makes me a sudden expert on this, but plugging it into the search window yielded nothing. I’m assuming northern Iran because of the assassin thing, but can anyone make me a hashish guru?

  17. The 1916 reference spells the word “jas” instead of “jazz”. Perhaps a clue lurks in there? (Although I can’t think of any likely word of which “jas” would be the truncation/offspring.)
    Re” Twin Peaks: possibly the image is of successively eating at all the houses in the district–or at least, all the boarding houses which might have been there?

  18. “Eating your way through Twin Peaks” was most likely a loose allusion to the Twin Peaks Tunnel project, which at the time was set to begin eating its way through Twin Peaks. At its completion it was the longest subway tunnel in the world. It had been in the planning stages for years and would have been familiar to all of Gleeson’s readers.

  19. I lived on Belgrave Ave., below Twin Peaks & the tower. There were raccoons.
    I’m sure there were no boarding houses (nor anything else) up there before the ‘fifties, as Rootless says (rootlessness has a sort of seismic logic to it, now I think about him living in SF).
    There are some nice Victorian houses at the top of Ashbury St and the top of 17th St, if I recall correctly (& I do).

  20. Off-Topic, but an interesting-looking new dictionary site has moved into town– Wordnik.

  21. MattF, thank for the pointer to Wordnik. I see it links to LH and the Log and so I’ve added it to my list of links.

  22. “Eating your way through Twin Peaks” was most likely a loose allusion to the Twin Peaks Tunnel project, which at the time was set to begin eating its way through Twin Peaks.
    That has to be right, and I thank you for sharing the vital knowledge that allows the phrase to make sense.

  23. I always thought “jazz” was really a variant of “jizz”, i.e “jism”, and that this was a joke on white people that they seemingly had no idea that there was a more earthy meaning hiding behind this “spunky” music. The same way that the term “rock’n’roll” was originally black slang for copulating but went mainstream with most people none the wiser. Is there any basis to that or is it just one of those 1970s era etymologies someone thought up to make the Man look unhip?

  24. rootlesscosmo says

    @peter ramus: thanks for the Twin Peaks Tunnel link. I live–on bedrock, actually, though ever rootless in spirit, as the Father of the Peoples would have perceived–about a block from O’Shaughnessy Drive, named for that city engineer.

  25. kishnevi: The 1916 reference spells the word “jas” instead of “jazz”. Perhaps a clue lurks in there? (Although I can’t think of any likely word of which “jas” would be the truncation/offspring.) Well, one theory is that it’s a truncation of jasbo, which itself is said to derive from the name Jasper. But the West Coast baseball examples were using the jazz spelling from early on, so it’s not clear if jas(s) predated jazz or just existed alongside of it for a while.
    vanya: I always thought “jazz” was really a variant of “jizz”, i.e “jism”…. There might be something to this, if jasm (variant of jism) gave rise to the “pep, vigor” sense. It’s as good a theory as any other. See the Wikipedia page on the word jazz for more on this.

  26. What is “jism”? I know it in Hindi, but have never heard outside filmi English before. I’m guessing it has nothing to do with “body”?

  27. I have likewise heard that jazz and a lot of jazzy terms were double entendre for sex. Is there any data for that, Hat?
    Jism is ejaculate. Urban Dictionary is useful for these kinds of terms.

  28. thanks zhoen. not a million miles away contextually from its filmi use after all.

  29. I always thought the jazz/sex double entendre thing was from the 40’s or so (much later than when the word was coined).

  30. Reference to ‘jizz’ inevitably made me think of its use as a piece of (mainly non-US, I think) birdwatching terminology to mean something like ‘overall visual impression’. The etymology of jizz in this sense is also a bit mysterious; there’s an article about it here. A connection with the usage of ‘jizz or jissom’ to ‘imply spirit or cockiness’ is one of the theories.

  31. Maneki Nekko says

    The word (or the musical term, at least) was originally jass, as in the Original Dixieland Jass Band, formed in 1909 according to Louis Armstrong. They changed the spelling when they got a recording contract because genteel types thought jass looked too much like ass.
    And the word had sexual connotations long before the 1940s. Check out “The Jazz Me Blues,” composed by Tom Delaney circa 1917 and recorded by the ODJB in 1921. Delaney also composed a tune called “I Wanna Jazz Some More.”

  32. Maneki: I assume you’re referring to this passage from Louis Armstrong’s 1936 autobiography Swing That Music:
    Only four years before I learned to play the trumpet in the Waif’s Home, or in 1909, the first great jazz orchestra was formed in New Orleans by a cornet player named Dominick James LaRocca. They called him “Nick” LaRocca. His orchestra had only five pieces but they were the hottest five pieces that had ever been known before. LaRocca named this band, “The Old Dixieland Jass Band”.
    LaRocca may very well have had an orchestra in 1909, but there’s no evidence of him calling it a “jass band” until 1916 (by which time the band was in Chicago). And that’s a year after the Chicago Tribune referred to the music as jazz, so there’s still no firm proof that jass was a precursor to jazz rather than a contemporaneous alternative form. (This is further supported by the West Coast baseball use of jazz already discussed.)
    If someone did find hard evidence of jass/jazz in New Orleans or anywhere else as early as 1909, that would change the narrative considerably. The OED for a time listed a 1909 citation which proved to be spurious (from a record that actually came out in 1919). Again, the Wikipedia entry has the full story.

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