Today (April 30) is International Jazz Day, a day for celebrating the impact of jazz music. And on that note, our proofreaders have looked into the origins of a few words from the world of jazz. Read on for some jazzy etymology!
1. Jazz (Music with Energy)
The earliest printed use of “jazz” is from a 1912 article about baseball, wherein a player is quoted saying of a new pitch type:
I call it the jazz ball because it wobbles and you simply can’t do anything with it.
This might have come from “jasm,” an older word meaning “energy or vigor.” The idea here, then, was that the ball had lots of energy and movement.
It took until 1915 for anyone to use the term for the music we know as “jazz,” which was previously known as ragtime or Dixieland music. But it is easy to see how it could also apply to the energetic, syncopated style that characterizes jazz.
2. Jam Session (Musical Improvisation)
A “jam” session is an occasion when musicians get together to improvise:
Anyone can join the jam session tonight.
The term comes from the 1920s, where performers from some of the big commercial bands were not allowed to play the improvised, free-form jazz they loved on stage. Instead, they would meet up for informal sessions after paid concerts to get their fix. And these were known as “jam sessions.”
Nobody is sure where the “jam” in this phrase comes from. But it could be related to the crowded spaces used (i.e., being jammed in). Or the sessions may have been considered a sweet treat, much like the fruit preserves of the same name!
3. Gig (A Short Engagement)
The word “gig” usually refers to a performance, although it can refer to any temporary job (hence the use of “gig economy” to describe a lot of modern work).
Originally, though, this word was coined by jazz musicians in the 1920s to refer to a single-night booking (rather than being the house band for a venue).
Thought to be short for “engagement,” people now use “gig” for performances of all kinds, from comedy to heavy metal. And, of course, jazz!
Louis Armstrong, puffing hard and gigging away.
4. Icky (Overly Sentimental or Unpleasant)
These days, “icky” means “unpleasant, distasteful, or disgusting.” It is also a very versatile word that you can use for all sorts of unpleasant feelings and sensations:
The walls are painted an icky shade of green.
Watching reality television makes me feel icky.
This rice is a bit icky.
In the 1930s, though, it was a term for overly sentimental jazz music (or a person who listened to said sentimental music), which is a bit more specific!
5. Square (Boring or Uncool)
Don’t worry. We’re not claiming that jazz musicians invented shapes with four equal sides. It’s an innovative musical genre, but we’re fairly sure squares have been around for a while longer than the saxophone.
Rather, the jazz world is responsible for “square” meaning “uncool”:
Stop being so square and come to the jazz club.
Popular in the 1950s and 60s, this insult first appeared in the 40s and referred to someone who was out of touch and didn’t “get” jazz.
One theory for its origin is that the imagery comes from the shape a conductor’s hand traces when a band is playing a regular, “boring” four-beat rhythm.
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