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Interesting Etymologies 19: The Jazz Age

Updated: Nov 20, 2021

"Hello again Word Lovers!" on this outing into the world of words we head into the world of music, with the words that come to us from the age of Jazz, the roaring 1920s!

Jazz: Creole patois "jass" meaning "strenuous activity", widely considered a reference to sexual activity, as is "Rock and Roll". Noted to perhaps be related to "jasm" (1860) of African origin in relation to congo dances to mean "energy" or "drive". If you look up the word "jism" it will say "see Jazz". It is argued that "Jazz" snuck into polite society without people really understanding what it meant (Ed: wink wink, nudge, nudge)

Ragtime: A clear relation to period/menstruation but could also be a ragged beat.

Blues: A term for feeling down. First use appeared in a song "Dallas Blues" by Heart Wand in 1912 although a musical theatre show back in 1798 was named "Blue Devils".

Rock'n'Roll: First use was on radio in 1951, the Moon Dog Rock and Roll house party. There is an interesting potential link to the formation of "reggae" touched upon too.

Funk: A bad smell or to smoke in dialectic French?

Boogie Woogie: Originally the name given to a rent party. A house party to celebrate paying the rent.

Hot Dogs: This snack appeared in the 1920s. The meat was reputed, jokingly or not, to be from dogs due to the poor quality.

Gig, Cool, hip and far out all emerge in this period too.

Jam: For musicians to play together. Seems to emerge from the idea of being in a fix, or a sticky situation and having to improvise.

Schmaltz: From being mad fatty in Yiddish

Busk/Busking: Actually of older heritage, from 1857 "to offer goods for sale only in bars and tap rooms". Busking in nautical language meant to cruise as a Pirate.

Scat Singing: In 1926 Louis Armstrong dropped the word sheet whilst recording "The Heebie Jeebies" and improvised.

This era produces a host of modern words including cocktails, sweatshirts, T-shirts, carparks, fridges, zip, robot sc-fi, microclimate and many more.

Explore the full Interesting Etymologies series archive here

As well as being the host of our Interesting Etymologies series, Charly Taylor is a stand up comedian and author. His latest offering is available now:

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Caesar’s army has returned from the long campaign in Gaul and the enemy has been all but defeated. Some of Pompey’s army, however, remains in Africa. Together with straggling Roman rebels and the local king Juba, they are gathering forces to prepare one last attack on what is now Caesar’s Rome. But there is one problem – a descendant of Scipio Africanus is fighting on the side of the Africans. And without a Scipio of their own, the superstitious Romans refuse to go to Africa to fight.

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