Verbal Riffs

A lot of modern music that is popular in the West is recognised as a fusion of West African and Western European musical forms, but the words describing the music, have no proven etymological origins. However current speculation is that words like jive, gig, jam, jazz, juke, blues, rock’n’roll etc also have their origins in West African languages. Languages were one of the very few things that the West Africans, who were uprooted very much against their will and brought to America as slaves, were able to bring with them, although sadly such languages were supressed once they arrived.

Juke, as in juke-box, is known to be associated with the American juke houses or juke joints. These were road houses providing drink, dancing and music – and frequently also a brothel as a lucrative side-line. In Gullah, also known as Sea Island Creole, a dialect of the Atlantic Coastal area that is fast dying out, the word joog, from which juke appears to be derived, means disorderly. But joog itself, etymologists now speculate, comes from Wolof, a language of West Africa – dzug, to live wickedly. Jive too is felt to be from Wolof originally.

Jazz, it is suggested, may have come from another West African language, Mandinka: jusi – to behave unusually.

But what about that word famously associated with the rock’n’roll and jazz greats: the riff? What West African language is this term associated with? Alas, no one can attribute any such exotic origins to the word. The best the etymologists can come up with is that riff is a shortened form of the prosaic English term for a repeated piece of music: the refrain.

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