Monday, March 26, 2012

Baseball and jazz, soda and tonic

Yesterday was Sunday, so I assume you stopped by my former home, the Boston Globe Ideas section, and read Ben Zimmer on the baseball origin of the word jazz. The earliest print citation for the word comes from the Los Angeles Times interview with minor league pitcher Ben Henderson: 
“I got a new curve this year,” he explained, “and I’m goin’ to pitch one or two of them tomorrow. I call it the Jazz ball because it wobbles and you simply can’t do anything with it.” The headline for the item, from April 2, 1912, was simply “Ben’s Jazz Curve.”
How did the word jump from sports to music? "One likely conduit was the orchestra at Boyes Springs [Calif.] brought in to entertain the [S.F. Seals] players in 1913, led by the drummer Art Hickman and featuring Bert Kelly on banjo," Zimmer writes. Kelly soon formed a jazz band in Chicago, and claimed to be the first to use the term musically, but the exact route of transmission is still mysterious.

If you haven't yet caught up with The Word, you'll find another language story worth a click in yesterday's Globe: Billy Baker's report on the status of a Boston-specific term for soda pop, the fast-dwindling tonic. Inspired by the word's history in the just-published final volume of the Dictionary of American Regional English, Baker went to Mendon, Mass. -- on the dividing line, as far as he can tell, between the tonic-loving city folks and the soda speakers of the greater Northeast -- to do a language survey for  himself. He found just one tonic user there -- a 78-year-old shop owner. That was no surprise to the language expert he consulted:
John McCarthy, a distinguished professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and a scholar on the subject of Boston language, said that when he first started polling students in the early 1990s about “tonic,’’ other than a few from urban Boston, the students said it was their parents who used the word. Now, he said, it was their grandparents. 
“It has become stigmatized, like ‘dungarees’ and the broad-A sound, as markers of a dialect that people don’t want to be associated with,’’ McCarthy said.
Not for me, of course; I hail from deep in pop land, from a county colored navy blue on the map at Tonic, in my dialect, is what you mix with gin and sip on a summer evening; that's an association it's hard to stigmatize.  


Bryan White said...

Yes, I associate "tonic" with gin & tonic too, or perhaps carbonated mineral water, or maybe even those crazy medicines that people peddled out of their cases in the 19th century.

Ø said...

A friend of mine once proposed making gin and tonics using gin and carbonated water, since that was what was in the house. I was flabbergasted. I couldn't tell whether he was influenced somehow by the local use of "tonic" (this was in the Boston area), or whether he just wasn't very experienced at mixing drinks.

John Burgess said...

My part of MA used 'soda', but 'tonic' was not unheard of. I think 'tonic' was able to keep its feet on the ground, so to speak, because of other carbonated tonic drinks, like Moxie, Spruce Beer, Birch Beer, Sassafras, and the like.

E W Gilman said...

My wife and her relatives in Weymouth, MA (east of Boston on the South Shore) always used "tonic", so I don't know how Boston-specific the word is. I don't have volume 5 of DARE to check.

tudza said...

The trouble with ODE type references, as useful as they are, is that it doesn't tell you that the term jazz was made up by ball players, as this seems to imply. It only tells you that the first reference to the word in print found so far was in relation to baseball. Did this pitcher make up the word jazz to describe his pitch, or did he more likely apply a word in current use for who knows what to it?