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The Etymology of 10 Musical Genre Names

In our recent confusion over the awful subgenre name “chillwave” and the not-terribly-exciting music it describes, we recently realized something embarrassing: Although we are fans of a wide array of music, we actually know very little about where the names of even the most obvious genres come from. We thought you might be curious, too, so we’re sharing what we learned in this rundown of 10 major musical genre names’ origins.

Rock ‘n roll: Ever wonder why the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is in Cleveland, of all places? Although “rock and roll” was originally blues slang for sex, a Cleveland record store owner named Leo Mintz began using the term to fool white shoppers into buying R&B records. It really caught on when Mintz sponsored Alan Freed’s 1951 radio show, “The Moondog Rock & Roll House Party” and the DJ’s raucous antics became a hit with local teens.

Country: Originally known as “hillbilly music,” America’s twangy, rural sounds were re-branded in the ’40s by the musician Ernest Tubb. “‘Hillbilly,'” said Tubb, “that’s what the press use to call it, ‘hillbilly music.’ Now, I always said, ‘You can call me a hillbilly if you got a smile on your face.’ We let the record companies know that they were producing country music ’cause we all come from the country.”  (“Country & Western,” meanwhile, referred mostly to the music of guitar-wielding cowboys of popular cinema.)

R&B: Think “hillbilly music” is offensive? How about back when Billboard has “race record” charts? In 1949, Jerry Wexler (then a writer for the magazine, later the renowned producer of everyone from Aretha Franklin to Dusty Springfield to Bob Dylan) coined a new term to replace it: “Rhythm and Blues.”

Punk: While “punk” was once (and still, occasionally) catch-all slang for a young delinquent, “punk rock” first appeared in a 1970 Chicago Tribune article, uttered by Ed Sanders of The Fugs. Although the band was one of punk’s immediate ancestors, Sanders went on to define the term as “redneck sentimentality.” The next year, Dave Marsh of Creem used “punk rock” to describe ? and the Mysterians. Its meaning evolved from there, originally encompassing a slew of Nuggets-era garage-rock bands and eventually solidifying into a more rigid description of the mid-’70s bands we think of as “punk.”

Hip-Hop: The first person to utter the word “hip-hop” was Keith “Cowboy” Wiggins of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. Apparently, he was teasing a pal who had joined the army about the sound boots make on pavement, and the verbal mash-up made it into his stage act. Eventually, disco groups started referring to bands like Wiggins’ as “hip-hoppers,” and, though pejorative, the name stuck.

Funk: Although it only became a legitimate genre in the late ’60s, “funky” had been a descriptor in jazz since just after the turn of the century — meaning some combination of sexy and danceable. Of course, funk’s etymology can be traced to the slang term for a nasty odor. Or, as P-Funk’s Bootsy Collins, perhaps the ultimate authority on such things, puts it: “In the beginning was that word called Funk, that word called Funk was a Bad word, so the One decided to dress up the Bad word in Flesh so now Funk became Flesh.”

Jazz: No one is quite sure who first used the word “jazz” or what it meant, but linguists trace its original slang use to the West Coast in 1912, which means the music itself, which appeared around the turn of the century in New Orleans, pre-dates its genre name. “Jazz” actually made its first print appearance in California sports writing in 1913. The term and the music it describes finally came together in Chicago two years later.

Blues: While the first copyrighted song that billed itself as “blues” was Hart Wand’s 1912 “Dallas Blues,” the term has its roots in 19th-century theater. The title of George Colman’s 1798 Blue Devils described a sort of inner turmoil particularly suited to the African-American music it described.

Ska: We know ska first appeared in ’50s Jamaica, but we’re still not sure who coined the term. Various musicians claim that it 1) refers to the “skat! skat! skat!” sound a guitar makes, 2) came about in 1959, when bassist Cluett Johnson told guitarist Ernest Ranglin to “play ska, ska, ska,” 3) that it evolved from Johnson’s typical slang greeting “skavoovie”, and 4) that musician an producer Byron Lee made it up.

Reggae: By the time Toots & the Maytals, who are credited with originating the term “reggae” in 1968 first named a song “Do the Reggay,” it was already known in Kingston as a slower version of rocksteady. It is thought to have evolved from rege-rege, which in its literal form means “ragged clothes” but also came to mean “a quarrel, protest.”

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