90.9 WBUR - Boston's NPR news station
Top Stories:
PLEDGE NOW

The Meaning Of The Word ‘Jazz’ Has Baseball Roots

The meaning of the word 'jazz' starts 100 years ago with an obscure baseball player named Ben Henderson. (Christophe Verdier/Flickr)

As Boston baseball fans prepare to celebrate the 100th birthday of Fenway Park, there’s another important centenntial involving the national pastime: it’s about how baseball gave us jazz. It turns out that the word “jazz” has an unlikely history. It starts 100 years ago with an obscure baseball player named Ben Henderson.

Henderson was a washed up pitcher with the Pacific Coast League with a reputation as an unreliable drunk, so his career never amounted to much. But back in 1912, he told a reporter about a new pitch he had developed, and became the first person known to use the word “Jazz.”

“And he told the reporter that he had a special pitch, a curve ball called “the jazz ball” that he was going to use, and he said it would completely flummox the batters because it wobbles so much you simply can’t do anything with it,” said Ben Zimmer, the language columnist for The Boston Globe and producer of visualthesaurus.com and vocabulary.com.

According to Zimmer, 100 years ago Henderson was playing for the Portland Beavers out in Oregon. And while his taste for liquor proved fatal to his baseball career, his description of his “jazz ball” turned out to be a major linguistic legacy.

Guests:

  • Ben Zimmer, language columnist for The Boston Globe and producer of visualthesaurus.com and vocabulary.com.

More:


Other stories from this show:

Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site.

Hosts Meghna Chakrabarti and Anthony Brooks introduce us to newsmakers, big thinkers and artists and bring us stories of relevance to Bostonians here and around the region. Live every weekday at 3.

WBUR's Sacha Pfeiffer is co-hosting Radio Boston while Meghna Chakrabarti is on maternity leave.

  • Listen: Weekdays, 3 p.m. on 90.9 FM
  • Live Call-In: (800) 423-TALK
  • Listener Voicemail: (617) 358-0607
Most Popular
This site is best viewed with: Firefox | Internet Explorer 9 | Chrome | Safari