Tag Archives: Irish origins of jazz

Cassidese Glossary – Jazz

For some time now, some of my on-line friends have advised me to provide a version of CassidySlangScam without the invective aimed at Cassidy and his supporters. In response to that advice, I am working on providing a glossary of the terms in Cassidy’s ludicrous book How The Irish Invented Slang with a short, simple and business-like explanation of why Cassidy’s version is wrong.

Daniel Cassidy, in his book How The Irish Invented Slang, claimed that the word jazz (and the alternative early form jass) derive from the Irish language.

The word jazz was first used in print in 1912, in the context of baseball, when Ben Henderson, a pitcher for the Portland Beavers reported in the Los Angeles Times of April 2 that he had a new curved throw which he called the jazz throw because it wobbled and was unpredictable.

The following year, a sports columnist with the San Francisco Bulletin, E. T. “Scoop” Gleason, used the word, which was new enough that Gleason felt obliged to explain it: “What is the ‘jazz’?  Why it is a little of that ‘old life,’ the ‘gin-i-ker,’ the ‘pep,’ otherwise known as enthusiasm.” Years later, Gleason recalled that he had learned the word from another journalist William “Spike” Slattery, who had picked up the word in a crap game. While rolling the dice, a player would shout “Come on, the old jazz.”

The following month another SF Bulletin journalist, Ernest J. Hopkins, wrote an article “In Praise of  ‘Jazz,’ a Futurist Word Which Has Just Joined the Language.” Spelling the word variously with one Z or two, he continued: “You can go on flinging the new word all over the world, like a boy with a new jack-knife. It is ‘jazz’ when you run for your train . . . ‘jazz’ when you demand a raise,  ‘jaz’ when you hike thirty-five miles on Sunday … Anything that takes manliness or effort or energy or activity or strength of soul is ‘jaz.’”

It seems to have acquired the meaning of a type of music later, after it was used to mean energy, enthusiasm, excitement. There was also a sexual meaning but etymologists are not agreed as to when it acquired this meaning.

All this information is uncontroversial and had already been covered by scholars like Peter Tamony and Gerald Cohen before Cassidy’s book was published. Cassidy took his information from these other researchers who had done the primary research already. The only original thing in Cassidy’s treatment of the history of the word jazz is his claim that the word jazz comes from the Irish teas, meaning ‘heat’.

This is highly unlikely, though unlike most of Cassidy’s claims, it is not completely impossible. Most of Cassidy’s claimed derivations are simply impossible because the phrase given by Cassidy doesn’t actually exist. (e.g. teas ioma, which Cassidy claimed was an Irish phrase meaning semen and was the origin of jasm.)

Teas is a genuine Irish word, though Cassidy misrepresented both its pronunciation and its meaning.

Cassidy claimed that it was pronounced as jass. It isn’t, in any variety of Irish. You can find sound files for the three main dialects of Irish Connaught, Munster and Ulster, by following this link: https://www.focloir.ie/en/dictionary/ei/heat

As for the definition, Cassidy defined jazz and teas as:

Jazz, n., a name given to African-American music; excitement, passion, enthusiasam; heat; “hot air”, excessive verbal passion; something or someone hot or exciting; sexual intercourse, to have sex with someone.

Teas (pron. j’ass, chass), n., heat, passion, excitement, ardor, enthusiasm, anger, highest temperature. (Ó Dónaill, 611; Dineen 517-518; Dwelly, 942.)

Later in the same article, Cassidy truncated this definition to “heat, passion, excitement”.

As others have pointed out, Cassidy took complex terms and cherry-picked the obscure meanings which suited him without taking into account the way these words are really used in the language. Of course, Cassidy did not speak any Irish and had no idea how any of these words would have been used in a real Irish conversation.

Here are the various definitions of teas according to Ó Dónaill’s dictionary:

teas, m. (gs. ~a). Heat. 1. Hotness, warmth. ~ na gréine, na tine, the heat of the sun, of the fire. ~ an tsamhraidh, summer heat. Fan go dtaga ~ an lae, wait till the day gets warmer. Tá an ~ ag teacht ionam arís, I am beginning to feel warm again. Tá a d~ féin acu, they are keeping each other warm. 2. Warm clothing, warm place. Cuir ~ ort féin, put on something warm. Cuir sa ~ é, put it in a warm place. Tá ~ éadaigh orthu, they are warmly clad. 3. Degree of hotness. Cuir ~ bhainne na bó ann, warm it to the level of milk fresh from the cow. 4. High temperature, feverishness. Tá ~ ina éadan, his brow is hot. Bhí ~ mór ina chuid fola, he had a very high temperature. Bhí ~ na haithinne ann, he was in a feverish hurry. 5. Ph:~ adamhach, atomic heat. ~ folaigh, latent heat. 6. Ardour, passion. ~ crábhaidh, fervent devotion. ~ ceana, grá, warmth of affection, of love. 7. Hottest, highest, stage. Bhí an chonspóid ina ~, the dispute was at its height.

And here are the definitions from Dinneen’s Dictionary:

Heat, warmth, sultriness; fig., comfort, excitement, anger, pain; teas na féil’ Eoin, the Midsummer heat; teas na gréine, the sun’s heat; teas na díthe, the severity of the loss; cuirim teas i. I heat; tháinig sé le teas na gréine, he is illegitimate.

Although Dwelly is irrelevant, being a dictionary of a different language (Scottish Gaelic) which was probably never widely spoken in the cities of North America, Dwelly defines teas as: Heat, warmth. 2 Superabundance, too much of the good things of life.

Of course, this is all rather complicated and that’s not even bringing adjectives like teasaí or related words like teaspach or teasaí into play! However, to summarise, Cassidy is saying that the original meaning of jazz was excitement, enthusiasm or sexual passion and that these are also primary meanings of the Irish word teas, meaning heat. So the question has to be, would anyone use teas to describe the excitement of a match or a party? Eh, no. Would they say that there is teas involved when they find someone sexually arousing? Eh, no. Would they say that someone is full of teas(a) if they are enthusiastic? Not really. Teas means heat. It doesn’t mean excitement (in spite of that word being mentioned by Dinneen) and it doesn’t mean sexual passion.

So, if jazz doesn’t come from the word teas, where does it come from? There are dozens of theories. Here’s a brief selection of them:

From the word jasmine, because jasmine oil was used in brothels and became associated with sex.

From Creole brothels where jezebels (prostitutes) worked.

From Creole patois jass “strenuous activity,” especially “sexual intercourse.”

From a black entertainer called Jas (James).

From a black entertainer called Chas (Charles).

From a Chicago musician called Jasbo (Jasper) Brown.

From jaser, a French word meaning conversation or intercourse, in various senses.

From the French word chasser, to hunt.

From a variant of jasm, a slang term dating back to 1860 that means ‘pep, energy’ and is related to jism for semen.

From various African languages, words like Mandingo jasi, ‘to become unlike oneself’.

From deas, the Irish for nice.

The link with jasm is the most likely to be correct but several others are reasonable candidates and certainly better than teas. The best you could argue for in the case of Cassidy’s supposed link between teas and jazz is that it should be given a place on this list as a possible origin. However, as I’ve argued above, because its pronunciation and meanings are not as suitable as Cassidy pretended, it is not a great candidate.