The etymology of the word JAZZ
Bob Rigter home
[This is an abridged version of Bob Rigter (1991), Light on the Dark Etymology of JAZZ in the Oxford English Dictionary, in Tieken & Frankis (eds.), Language usage and description, Editions Rodopi, Amsterdam - Atlanta. ISBN 90-5183-312-1]
This article discusses the entries for the word
JAZZ in the 1933 and 1976 supplements to the first edition of the
Oxford English Dictionary (OED), and in the body of the text of the second, 1989, edition. Although, compared to
the 1933 supplement, the 1976 and 1989 entries show a decided improvement in approach and quality, none of
them offers an etymology for the word JAZZ.
In this article, arguments are put forward for a creolized French etymology. The word is derived from
The 1933 supplement
The entries for JAZZ as a substantive and a verb
in the 1933 supplement to the OED are illustrated with quotations
dating from 1918 to 1930. The drift of some of these quotations is derogatory and racist, even though by 1930 the
development of jazz music and jazz culture was already such that the emergence of jazz as America's principal
contribution to world culture was beginning to be discernable. There is no mention of any use of the word JAZZ
before 1918. Clearly, the editors were not aware of, or did not see fit to include, the word JASS on the label of the
first jazz record, which appeared on 7 March 1917, and contained the music of the Original Dixieland Jass Band.
Since one million copies of this record were sold, it must have played an important role in the dissemination of
the word JASS. The 1933 supplement does not provide an etymology of the word JASS or JAZZ.
The 1976 supplement
The entries in the 1976 supplement are illustrated with quotations dating from 1909 to 1974. The number of quotations
is considerably increased, and, with two exceptions dating from 1919, quotations containing the word nigger have
been removed. Also the attitude to jazz, and specifically jazz music, has become less derogatory. Witness, for
example, the suppression of the 1930 quotation from the Observer, in which jazz is opposed to 'real music'.
Note the following entries for JAZZ as a substantive:
a. ... a type of music originating among American Negroes, characterized by its use of improvisation,
syncopated phrasing, a regular or forceful rhythm, often in common time, and a 'swinging' quality ...
b. A piece of jazz music. ...
c. spec. A passage of improvised music in a jazz performance. ...
2. transf. Energy, excitement, 'pep'; restlessness, excitability. ...
3. Meaningless or empty talk, nonsense, rot, 'rubbish'; unnecessary ornamentation; anything unpleasant
or disagreeable. ...
4. slang. Sexual intercourse.
And as a verb:
1. trans. To speed or liven up; to render more colourful, 'modern', or sensational; to excite. ...
b. To play (music, or an instrument) in the style of jazz. Freq. const. up. ...
2. intr. To play jazz; to dance to jazz music. Hence transf., to move in a grotesque or fantastic manner;
to behave wildly...
3. trans. and intr. To have sexual intercourse (with). slang.
The editor of the 1976 supplement has adopted the policy of letting the jazz world do some of its own defining of
what jazz is, by including a number of quotations from jazz musicians such as Jo Jones and Dave Brubeck, jazz
critics such as Leonard Feather and Marshall Stearns, and a music journal such as Melody Maker.
There are also a number of quotations from sources that suggest conceivable origins of the word JAZZ. Many
of these suggestions hint at a black African origin and point to the usage of the word in the Creole dialect in New
No etymology of the word JAZZ is provided.
The second edition of the OED (1989)
The information under JAZZ in the 1976 supplement to the OED is incorporated unaltered in the main body of the
1989 edition. Accordingly, no etymology of the word JAZZ is provided there either.
African slaves and French creolisation
American blacks were imported as slaves from Africa. On the African coast there were French, Dutch, English
and Danish settlements from which the slave trade was carried on. More to the south there were also Portuguese
settlements. The islands Guadeloupe, Martinique and, until 1800, Haïti were French.
In the early nineteenth century, before the first negro republic was founded in Haïti in 1804, French-speaking
white slave-owners fled from Haïti with their slaves to New Orleans in Louisiana. At the time, Louisiana was French.
The year of the Louisiana Purchase, when the Americans bought Louisiana from Napolean, was 1803.
Black slaves were also imported in Louisiana directly from the African coast. A considerable number of the
slaves imported in French-speaking Louisiana, were supplied by French slave traders.
African slaves in Louisiana did not preserve their original African languages. Due to the fact that they had been
captured or bought as individuals from various regional and tribal backgrounds, they developed pidgin languages
in which much of the vocabulary was adopted from the language of their masters. Even today, French continues
to be spoken in certain areas of Louisiana. In view of all this, the conclusion is justified that, in the later nineteenth
century, black speakers in Louisiana would have quite some words of French origin in their vocabulary.
The origin of jazz music
Jazz music originated in New Orleans at the beginning of the twentieth century. Many inhabitants of New Orleans
were Creoles of mixed French and African origin. A number of these Creoles were accomplished musicians, trained
in the European musical tradition. Whatever light-coloured Creoles may have retained of a heritage of African music
was often suppressed due to the demands of cultured behaviour in a society in which Creoles of mixed blood did not
look upon themselves as blacks.
There was a lot of dancing in New Orleans, not only in the Voodoo gatherings of proletarian blacks in Congo
Square, but also at more European picnics, boat-trips, dances and other functions. Musicians were in great demand.
When in 1898 the Spanish-American war ended and military units were disbanded, second-hand shops were full of
clarinets, trumpets, trombones, tubas and drums, which could be bought by even the poorest negroes. For the black
man, becoming a musician was one of the few possible escapes from poverty and heavy physical labour.
Before the birth of jazz music, there were thus two musical traditions in New Orleans. One was white, based on
musical training in the European tradition. The other was black, based on an African aural tradition (see Sidran 1981).
Non-creole proletarian blacks played their instruments by ear. Instead of reading music, they played directly. They
faked and improvised, and used the rhythms and scales they had brought from Africa.
Before the start of Jim Crow legislation, coloured Creoles took up a position in between white and black music, but
closer to the European musical tradition. However, after the Supreme Court's ruling in the Plessy vs. Ferguson case
in 1896, which was to be the start of racial segregation, coloured Creoles were looked upon as black, and began to
suffer the social and economic effects of segregation. One of the results was that they began to mix with black
musicians in the entertainment business.
The mutual influence of Creole musicians and proletarian black musicians led to the birth of jazz. The Creole's
executional sophistication and theoretical knowledge of European music, the black musician's practical creativity
and emotional intensity, and, last but not least, the shared rhythmical roots of blacks and Creoles, gave rise to
the music of one suppressed class of coloured musicians.
Jazz was born. The music was soon imitated and adopted by white musicians. Thus the Original Dixieland Jass
Band, which in 1917 made the first jazz record, was all white. As such, it was presentable in white society and made
a lot of money, which, for a long time to come, could not be said of black jazz.
Rhythm, excitement, sex, dancing and music
Whites looked upon early jazz, and certainly black jazz, as associated with licentious behaviour. Jazz music was
looked upon as whorehouse music. And it is true that early jazz flourished especially in Storyville, the redlight
district of New Orleans. Right from the birth of jazz, there is this close association of rhythm, excitement, sex,
dancing and music that is found in the various meanings of the word JAZZ listed in the OED.
A French etymon for JAZZ
In New Orleans, as also in some coastal areas of Africa and on some islands on the trade route from Africa to
Louisiana, many coloured people spoke a creolised French. If no English origin appears to be available for the
American word JAZZ, a French source would seem quite likely in view of the origin of jazz music in New Orleans,
and in view of its Creole and African roots.
If there is a French etymon for JAZZ, it should satisfy the following criteria:
a. the French word can be aptly used to refer to the sense of accelerating the rhythm of the music without actually
speeding the music up. This seeming acceleration is so crucially characteristic of jazz - and of the African strands
of its origin (see Lafcadio Hearn (1890) p.220) - that a word referring to it would be a suitable label for the music.
b. the French word can be aptly used to the sexual pursuit stylised in the traditional African dance to the African
strands in the origin of this type of rhythmical music. (Again, see Lafcadio Hearn (1890) p.220, where the music
and the dancing in the French West Indies are described. Hearn also refers to a source dating from 1722, in
which the exciting, rhythmical music and overtly sexual motions in dancing to it, are described by a French priest).
c. the French word can be used for sexual intercourse.
d. the French word must be phonetically relatable to JAZZ, or its earlier form JASS.
A French word that meets all these requirements is CHASSE.
CHASSE and JAZZ in French dictionaries
The Grand Larousse de la Langua Française (1971) derives CHASSER from Classical Latin CAPTARE. It provides
two related meanings: 'chercher à prendre' and 'pousser devant soi, obliger à avancer ... faire avancer rapidement'.
Clearly, the first can be related to the sexual connotation, and the second to the rhythmical connotation of the word
JASS as it was used in New Orleans round 1900.
The noun CHASSE is defined (under II.1) as follows: 'Action de poursuivre une personne ou un animal en vu de
s'en emparer.' Among the examples given, are: Faire la chasse au mari; Faire la chasse à une femme.
Le Robert, Dictionnaire de la langue française (1985), agrees with the Grand Larousse almost verbatim, but adds:
'ÊTRE EN CHASSE, en chaleur (se dit de la femelle de certains animaux à l'époque où elle recherche le mâle)'.
Under JAZZ, both dictionaries state that the origin of the word is obscure, and that it used to be written as JASS.
Le Robert, in addition, provides '... un sens dialectal (région de la Nouvelle-Orléans) obscène <<coïter>>'.
I think I have provided the required justification to replace the phrase '[Origin unknown: see quots. for some of the
many suggested derivations. Cf. *JAZZBO]', which we still find in the second edition of the OED, by the phrase
'[creolised F. chasse]' in the next edition.
My conclusion that French CHASSE is the etymon of JAZZ, implies that I do not accept that the proper name
JAZZBO (allegedly an early itinerant Negro player along the Mississippi) may have given rise to the noun and/or
verb JAZZ. This is one of the suggestions found in an entry in the 1976 supplement to the OED. It rather seems
the other way about: JAZZBO might well be a compound of JAZZ and BEAU, both of French origin.
I look upon various additional meanings of JAZZ, such as nonsense, anything unpleasant or disagreeable,
grotesque, riotous and fantastic, as having developed in the wake of negative white reactions to jazz music since
it started spreading in 1917. It is interesting to see that the gradual change in appreciation of jazz music coincides
with the development of less negative meanings, such as lively, sophisticated, unconventional, which are listed in
the 1976, but not in the 1933 supplement to the OED.
A Supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary (1976), ed. by R. W. Burchfield, Vol. II, H - N. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
The Oxford English Dictionary (1989), ed. by J. A. Simpson and E. S. C. Weiner, Oxford: Clarendon Press (2nd ed.)
Grand Larousse de la langue française (1971-8), 6 vols., Paris: Librairie Larousse.
Le Grand Robert de la langue française (1985), 9 vols., Paris: Le Robert (2nd ed.)
Hearn, Lafcadio (1890) Two Years in the French West Indies, New York/Oxford: Harper & Brothers (repr. 1923).
Sidran, Ben (1981) Black Talk, New York: Da Capo Press.