Ontdef10. The etymology of the word "jazz"
“To the memory of E. T. ‘Scoop' Gleeson, reporter for the San Francisco Bulletin, who played a key role in bringing the term ‘jazz’ from almost total obscurity into standard English. He coined ‘jazz’ (pep, vim, vigor, fighting spirit) in an effort to inspire the local minor-league baseball team, March 6, 1913. By 1915 the term was brought to Chicago denoting a genre of music—a transfer that could not have taken place without Gleeson’s spadework on the word in San Francisco.”
Prior to its use as a musical term, “jazz” was attested in the newspaper San Francisco Bulletin, March 3,1913 (in a pejorative sense; “very much to the jazz” = “nonsense,” “hot air”) and then, starting on March 6,1913 almost always with the favorable meanings “pep, vim, vigor, fighting spirit” and almost always in baseball articles. This holds at least for March through June 1913. In a year or two the term would spread to a musical context. The point is, there is not a shred of attested evidence that “jazz” was used in a musical sense before the numerous attestations of the term in a baseball context. Jazz music was no doubt being played prior to this in New Orleans, but the term “jazz” had not yet been used to describe it.
If “jazz” had a sexual sense prior to 1913, this meaning could not have escaped the worldly wise sportswriters of the San Francisco Bulletin. Even if one had been so naive as to be unaware of it, someone surely would have drawn this shortcom ing to his attention after the first one or two uses of the term.
Note the article by Ernest J. Hopkins, San Francisco Bulletin, April 5,1913, p. 28, cols. 5-6: “What’s Not In The News—In Praise of ‘Jazz’ a Futurist Word Which Has Just Joined the Language.” Note particularly the last part of the title: “ . . . Which Has Just Joined the Language.” “Jazz” was definitely a new term, and none of the definitions given by Hopkins has anything to do either with music or sex: (“This remarkable and satisfactory-sounding word, however, means some thing like life, vigor, energy, effervescence of spirit, joy, pep, magnetism, verve, virility, ebulliency, courage, happiness—oh, what's the use?—JAZZ.”)
"jazz" (1912)--some thoughts by Gerald Cohen, August 13, 2003.
“On April 5, 1913 the San Francisco Bulletin (p.28/5-6) carried an article titled "In Praise of "Jazz," a Futurist Word Which Has Just Joined the Language." Note the last six words: "...Which Has Just Joined the Language." The term "jazz" was first used in the San Francisco Bulletin on March 3, 1913 and then repeated frequently. That is what the April 5, 1913 article is referring to. The 1912 attestation of the term in the Los Angeles Times was evidently unknown to the S.F. Bulletin writer(s).
In 1938 E.T. "Scoop" Gleeson—initiator of "jazz" in the baseball columns of the S.F. Bulletin—wrote an article about how he acquired and started using the term ("I Remember the Birth of Jazz", in his column "San Francisco on Parade," The Call-Bulletin (S.F. newspaper) September 3, 1938, p. 3/1). Gleeson tells how he acquired the term from sports editor William "Spike" Slattery, who in turn had heard it from players in a crap game ("Come on, the old jazz"). No mention at all is made of hearing it from reference to a "jazz ball" in Portland or Los Angeles. None.
It is especially important that the other information in Gleeson's 1938 article jibes in all main details with what we know from the 1913 newspapers. Gleeson's credibility is therefore established, and there seems to be no reason to doubt his account of how he acquired the term "jazz."
Here is the relevant part of Gleeson's 1938 article: "Similarly the very word 'jazz' itself, came into general usage at the same time. We were all seated around the dinner table at Boyes [Springs; the Seals spring-training camp] one evening and William ("Spike") Slattery, then sports editor of The Call, spoke about something being the "jazz," or the old "gin-iker" fizz." "Spike had picked up the expression in a crap game. "Whenever one of the players rolled the dice he would shout, 'Come on, the old jazz." "For the next week [G. Cohen: actually longer] we gave 'jazz' a great play in all our stories."
So, best judgment, pending the discovery of information to the contrary: The discovery of 1912 "jazz" is not the source of "jazz" as used by Scoop Gleeson in his 1913 articles. It is therefore incorrect to think of "jazz" being traced back in a straight line to 1912 and Los Angeles. The term goes back in a straight line to March 3, 1913 in the S. F. Bulletin, thence to a good-luck incantation in a crap game. At this point we don't have clear evidence about where the crap players got the term.”
Internet resources on etymology of "jazz"
- Ben Zimmer, "How baseball gave us ‘jazz’: The surprising origins of a 100-year-old word, March 25, 2012. Accessed March 30, 2022.
- Lewis Porter, "Where Did 'Jazz,' the Word, Come From? Follow a Trail of Clues, in Deep Dive with Lewis Porter, WBGO, February 26, 2018. Accessed March 30, 2022.
- Hugh Rawson, "Jazz Is a Four-Letter Word," About Words (A blog from Cambridge Dictionary), June 27, 2011. Accessed April 3, 2022.