Though these days the term wordmonger refers to "a writer or speaker who uses language pretentiously or carelessly," please join me in proposing a new meaning. A fishmonger appreciates and promotes fish, therefore, a wordmonger does the same for words.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Musical slang

Musical slang

Good friend & guitar player Ed Gerhard is playing in California this week, so I’m celebrating by taking a look at some terms used among musicians.

Since the 1930s, musicians have used the term jam. Etymologists argue over its origin. One school argues that the verb jam and the noun jam session come from the understanding that when playing for their own amusement, musicians try to jam as many notes in as possible. Another school argues that the 1730s understanding of jam, fruit preserves, led to the 1930s musical term, as both are sweet and excellent.

A particularly sweet & excellent series of notes might be referred to as a riff, another word over which etymologists bicker. Riff appears to have been in use since 1917 or so. Some connect riff to riffle, as a riffle in a stream, while others suggest it comes from a shortening of the word refrain, which comes from a Latin term that meant to break off. Interestingly, since the 1920s, a musician who improvises a solo (possibly including any number of riffs) is said to be taking a break.

The noun gig, meaning job playing music, is quite the mystery, Nobody’s really sure what its origins are, though it showed up among jazz musicians slightly after the turn of the century, soon to be followed by the verb gigging & the past tense verb gigged.

As of 1789 an extemporizing pianist was said to be vamping. The great grandmother of the word vamp was the Anglo-French word vaumpe, which refers to the front section of a shoe. It appears that the musical vamp may have come from the fact that the fronts of shoes often had to be repaired, or revamped, & that a good piano player could take an old song and give it new shoes.

Giving a song new shoes takes some chops, a word that was first born in 1589 to refer to the flesh that covers the jaws. This leads to the speculation that by the early 1900s when the musical understanding of chops was born, it first referred to the technical facility of a player of a brass instrument. Chops has since generalized beyond music to apply to technical facility of any kind.

The original musical axe (or ax) was a jazz saxophone in 1955 (though nobody knows whose saxophone it was). This was apparently because, like the more traditional axe, it could get the job done. By 1955 the term axe was being applied to guitars. Once guitar players got hold of the term, it generalized to refer to almost any musical instrument (though I wonder about the concertina, the triangle, the bagpipes…).

Good followers, what instrument should simply never be referred to with the word axe? Also, did anything in this week’s post surprise you?

My thanks go out to this week’s sources: OED, Merriam Webster, Ed Gerhard, Wordnik, & Etymonline


  1. These are wonderful. Funny that there is such argument about two such common terms. I vote for jam meaning jamming in many notes and riff being a shortened term for refrain. My mom used to play the auto-harp. Can't quite see her referring to it as her ax. Ha!

  2. Fascinating to see where these terms may have come from. I'm with Christine on jamming the notes. I had a friend who played the piccolo who loved to call it her "ax". Obviously with some whimsical irony. I can buy "riff"as a derivation of refrain. Makes sense. I think I heard once that "gig" came from a West African word, but I don't remember the particulars.

    Your friend Ed looks like an amazing musician. I'll have to look into his music!

  3. Hey Christine & Anne. My loving wife just suggested that "gig" may have come from "gigging for frogs," a somewhat barbaric hunting practice involving a barbed spear. I find it intriguing that none of the etymologies of the musical "gig" even hint at that connection.