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This column presents adventures in etymology,
or the study of the origins of words and phrases.
This month, I present. [cue drum roll] Origins of Odd Words You Use Every Day.
One theory about this word, which means policeman says that it is an acronym for Constable On Patrol. Others say it is a shortened reference to the copper buttons or badge on their uniforms. While its ultimate origin is disputed, most authorities agree that it is a shortening of copper. Cop was first used in 1859 and copper predates the term from 1846. Copper, as slang for policeman, comes from the verb to cop, which dates from 1704 and means to catch. The Oxford English Dictionary notes that an 1864 newspaper stated that people would display a copper coin as they passed a policeman, in effect calling him copper. This may have been the beginning of the confusion with the metal copper. So, cop really comes from a shortened form of “catcher!”
The exact origin of this word is unknown, but there are two suggestions that have been made: It is a term from a regional Creole dialect meaning excite or hurry up; it may also have come from the name of an early jazz musician by the name of Jasbo Brown, who played along the Mississippi River and later in Chicago cabarets. Also, Jelly Roll Morton claimed to have coined the term in 1902. According to WordOrigins.org, jazz actually came from baseball slang, and meant vigor or spirit. The earliest use of jazz referring to a style of music is from 1914, when it was used to describe the syncopated ragtime style played by San Francisco bandleader Art Hickman. The term originally referred to the lively style of Hickman’s music and eventually became the name for that style. One of Hickman’s musicians claimed to have taken the word with him to Chicago in 1914, and from there, the term headed south to New Orleans.
Our word jelly is late Middle English, and originally referred to savory aspic molds of meat or fish; in the late 18th century, it also came to mean fruit-flavored molds. Jelly has its roots in the Latin gelu, meaning frost. Later Latin uses included gelata (“frozen”), and gelare, “to freeze” (points for anyone who sees the connection between Latin gelata and the Italian word gelato, meaning “ice cream”).
The verb jerk of course means a short, sharp motion, and dates from the 16th Century. The noun jerk, referring to an inept or stupid person, comes from at least the 1930s, and refers to one who is from a jerkwater (backward or rustic) town. In time, a jerk came to mean a backward or rustic person, hence foolish or inept.
Many theories abound as to the origin of this word, the most successful of all Americanisms. Some theories attribute the phrase to Andrew Jackson, stating that OK comes from oll korrect, a misspelling of all correct. However, Allen Walker Read of Columbia University (who spent much of his life tracking down the origin of a certain four-letter word beginning with f ) resolved the mystery: In 1839, called the Anti-Bell-Ringing Society in Boston, a “frolicsome group,” as Read describes them, started using the term to mean oll korrect, a facetious misspelling. The Boston Morning Post contains the first recorded use of OK in March of 1839, referring to this group’s activities. The slang quickly gained acceptance, after spreading south to New York, and the rest, as they say, is history.
The Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories
Kevin Cox, Editor of The Willamette Galley, is a technical writer, composer, and musician, and has been a member of STC since 2000. He enjoys the outdoors, music, genealogy, and playing with words. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.