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The Meaning Of The Word 'Jazz' Has Baseball Roots09:24
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The meaning of the word 'jazz' starts 100 years ago with an obscure baseball player named Ben Henderson. (Christophe Verdier/Flickr)
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:

This segment aired on April 9, 2012.

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