Jive Talkin’

By | February 25, 2015

Whilst on an early morning flight recently, I ordered a cup of coffee and, the coffee being rather hot, I said to the flight attendant, “Do you have a zarf?” I got a blank look, as it appears few people know that “zarf” is the word for those cardboard sleeves around coffee cups that keep you from burning your hand (Forsyth, 2012). The word comes from the Arabic ظرف, zarf, meaning “container or envelope.” It has its origins in 13th-century Turkey P.S. (Pre-Starbucks), where coffee was consumed in an elaborate ritual using handle-less cups. The zarf was a cover used to protect the cup from damage and the hand from getting burned. Zarfs (also zarves) were decorative, and could be adorned with silver, gold, copper, brass, or other metals, as well as wood, ivory, bone, and other materials—or advertising, in the case of today’s zarfs. (It is also a legal Scrabble word, worth 16 points, more if you land on a double/triple letter/word space.)

At any rate, it’s hard to explain word etymologies in a loud airplane cabin at cruising altitude, and I suddenly had an image of Barbara Billingsley standing up à la Airplane! and saying, “Oh, stewardess? I speak jive.”

The word stewardess has gone out of fashion, which I find regrettable only because I like the mock-plural stewardii coined by Thomas Pynchon in the novel Inherent Vice (I haven’t seen the movie yet).

At any rate, back to jive. At one time, you could actually learn to speak jive. Cab Calloway was a famous jazz singer and bandleader, leading one of the country’s most popular big bands in the 1930s and 40s. His signature hit was 1931’s “Minnie the Moocher”—with its scatted “hi de hi de hi de hi” refrain—but few people know that Calloway also wrote a dictionary, Cab Calloway’s Hepster’s Dictionary: Language of Jive in 1939. The idea was instruct people living outside cities (in Squaresville, baby) how to communicate should you come up to town and encounter a jazzman in his natural habitat. Needless to say, much of the terms relate to music, as well as, uh, other recreational activities to be found there.

Dictionaries are nearly as old as written language. The earliest known to historians date from somewhere around 2300 B.C.E. and were cuneiform tablets created during the Akkadian Empire and consisted of lists of Sumerian-Akkadian words. Indeed, the earliest purpose of dictionaries was to translate words from one language to another. Likewise, the first English dictionaries were simply English translations of Latin, French, or Italian words.

The word “dictionary” itself was coined John of Garland in 1220 in his book Dictionarius, which was a primer on Latin vocabulary and diction. John of Garland—his exact birth and death dates are unknown—was a philologist and grammarian as well as a prolific author and poet. His works were highly popular in England, particularly after 1476 when William Caxton installed the first printing press in England. Caxton himself wasn’t as much a fan of John of Garland’s works as was his assistant, Wynkyn de Werde (né Jan van Wynkyn de Werde). De Werde took over Caxton’s print shop after Caxton’s death in 1491 and it was de Werde who, even during Caxton’s lifetime, sought to improve the quality of printed books. Thus is de Werde commonly thought of a “England’s first typographer.” The reason was aesthetic, true, but also practical: as book printing and the number of print shops started to grow around the turn of the century, improved book quality was an important competitive advantage.

One of the most important results of the establishment of printing in England was the standardization of the English language—or to the extent that English has ever been standardized. In an age before there had been any kind of mass communication, people living in disparate parts of Britain spoke different dialects, some of which could even be considered different languages. Even if you travel around the U.K. today, it can be difficult to understand people the further you get from London.

What the earliest English printers did—Caxton, de Werde, as well as another prolific printer and contemporary of de Werde’s named Richard Pynson—was translate and print books in an English dialect called Chancery Standard. It was the dialect used in London, which was after all the political and economic center of England. It was printing more than anything that started to “fix” the English language.

OK, blog participation time. Say the phrase “Ye Olde Curiosity Shoppe” out loud.

Let me guess: you pronounced “Ye” with a y sound, right? If you did, that’s actually not correct. It is pronounced the because the Y in that context isn’t really the letter Y. It’s an Old English letter called a “thorn,” pronounced with a th sound. The thorn was written in various ways before printing (commonly Þ), but as it evolved with other letters, it began to look vaguely like the letter Y. When Caxton started printing, he had to import type from Germany or Italy, which did not include a thorn character, but did include the letter Y. So Caxton fudged it a bit and took to setting the word the as Ye (Y with a superscript e). It was, however, always pronounced with a th sound and not with a y sound. (The word that was similarly typeset as Yt.) When the first edition of the King James Bible was printed in 1611, it used Ye in various spots. We occasionally see ye used today, usually in a mock-antique way, but pronounced in a way it was never pronounced in antiquity. The only language in which the thorn is used today is Icelandic; those of us who follow the CrossFit Games know that the surname of Icelandic champion athlete Annie Thorisdottir is written as Þórisdóttir in her native language.

There are actually a bunch of letters that were shed from English over the centuries: wynn, yogh, ash, eth, the long s (aka the f, although it wasn’t really an f, used as an s in certain cases until about the late 18th century), and even the ampersand (&) was a proper letter at one time (it stood for et, the Latin for and).

One of the simultaneously great and terrible things about the English language is that it has always been an organic language. That is, the grammar police to the contrary, there is no central authority determining what is proper English and what isn’t. (This is unlike French and other languages, which do have academies that vet changes and additions to the language.) There are conventions—and I refer to you “Weird Al” Yankovic’s “Word Crimes” for a good compilation—but generally speaking those conventions are wont to change. Sure, the Oxford English Dictionary adds new words to the lexicon every year, but that’s not really official. Kind of like the Weather Channel naming snow storms, much to the annoyance of the American Meteorological Society.

English changes according to how it is actually used. The terrifying prospect is that Internet-ese or texting shorthand will infiltrate itself into “real” English. Two weeks ago, while touring Canon Solutions America’s Customer Experience Center in Boca Raton, they had been printing a small pocket lexicon of texting abbreviations. OMG!

Speaking of OMG…did you know that little bit of shorthand for “Oh My God!” was actually coined in 1917? Its first recorded use was in a letter by British Admiral John Arbuthnot Fisher who wrote to Winston Churchill on September 9, 1917:

I hear that a new order of knighthood is on the tapis—O.M.G. (Oh! My God!)—Shower it on the Admiralty! (Fisher, 1919).

The context is a bit involved (it was in the midst of World War I), but suffice to say, spelling out what the abbreviation stands for probably defeats the point of using the abbreviation at all.

If these abbreviations do creep into the language…well, c’est la vie. (See how foreign words and phrases make their way into English?) And that would be OK. (And I could probably do a whole post on the etymology of OK.) Let’s hope, though, that text message abbreviations don’t become the only way that people enjoy classic English literature—back in 2005, British mobile communications network Dot Mobile had announced a plan to “translate” classic works of literature into text messages, for the purpose of helping students study for exams. (“2b? Nt2b? ???” Is that a question?) Dot Mobile went out of business before anything could come of it, though.

English is always evolving and borrowing words from every which way. Which is a good thing, otherwise we would not have lovely and useful words like zarf. And that ain’t jive.



Associated Press, “Get the classics in text messages,” USA Today, November 18, 2005, http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/life/books/news/2005-11-17-shakespeare-text_x.htm.

Asher Cantrell, “12 Letters that Didn’t Make the Alphabet,” Mental Floss, December 13, 2012. http://mentalfloss.com/article/31904/12-letters-didnt-make-alphabet.

John Arbuthnot Fisher, Memories, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1919, p. 78.

Mark Forsyth, The Horologicon: A Day’s Jaunt Through the Lost Words of the English Language, New York: Berkley Books, 2012, p. 55.

“Glossary of jive talk,” Wikipedia, last modified on December 27, 2014, retrieved on February 12, 2015, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glossary_of_jive_talk.

“Richard Pynson,” Wikipedia, last modified on January 28, 2015, retrieved on February 12, 2015, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Pynson.

“Thorn,” Wikipedia, last modified on January 29, 2015, retrieved on February 12, 2015, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thorn_(letter).

“Wynkyn de Werde,” Wikipedia, last modified on January 28, 2015, retrieved on February 12, 2015, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wynkyn_de_Worde.

“Zarf,” Wikipedia, last modified on January 30, 2015, retrieved on February 12, 2015, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zarf.

Share this post