French or Latin, abbreviation or onomatopoeia? Oxford Today readers compete to lift the lid on a mystery word history.
We asked readers of the last Oxford Today magazine to suggest possible derivations of the word jam (‘Molecular marmalade’, Michaelmas 2014, p. 59). Here we pick through the responses, and invite an expert verdict from Professor Anatoly Liberman, OUP author of Word Origins ... and How We Know Them: Etymology for Everyone and of the regular Oxford Etymologist blog.
David Woodruff (Wadham, 1953) Amratlal Shah (Trinity, 1966) back the Oxford English Dictionary explanation that the noun may derive from jam in the sense ‘to bruise or crush by pressure’. Lesley Chamberlain (LMH, 1973) elaborates: ‘I’d go for the substantive jam defined as “a mass of things . . . crowded or packed together”. This formation would follow the idea behind the German einmachen = to make jam, preserve fruit. Einmachen gets the mixture of ingredients as one substance into the jar. Compare also the French for jam, confiture, with a primary meaning of preserving and a derivation from the Latin conficere, literally “to make together”. The German verb is a calque on the Latin and it’s tempting to think the English noun jam is too.’ Pip Kirby (Christ Church, 1966) adds that the verb jam is ‘in turn possibly derived from champ; in the sense of “compress into a small space”.’
However, Brian S Lee (St Peter’s, 1956) is not convinced by the resemblance to jam in the ‘press, squeeze’ sense. Etymologists, he says, ‘could as soon derive the name from its resemblance to the appearance of your finger after you’ve caught it between the jamb and the door.’ He opines that the word probably comes from a fruit ingredient — ‘damson, a kind of purplish plum formerly imported from Damascus’, but with an altered initial consonant ‘suggestive, as the tongue is lovingly slurped back from the palatal ridge behind the teeth, of the relish with which the preserve is enjoyed’. The idea of pleasure likewise underlies the claim, cited by Alan Ross (Wadham, 2000) and by Lisa Spooner, that French j’aime is the ultimate origin.
Denis Vandervelde (Exeter, 1952) digs deeper in this foreign field, comparing early French jambose, or ‘rose-apple’. Stephen Waddams (Jesus, 1981, Visiting Fellow) concurs: ‘I suggest jambo, or jambu, meaning “rose-apple”, used for making preserves. An Italian word for this fruit is giambo, which would explain the English spelling giam (OED 1747).’
Bob Turvey (interloping shamelessly from Trinity College, Cambridge, 1968) goes all out for onomatopoeia, opining that the word jam was first the ‘gobbling sound’ made by those eating it; ‘And then the next time they wanted some jam, they just made the same sound, which then became a proper word.’ Equally playfully, he also cooks up the hypothesis that jam began as an abbreviation for ‘Jamaican sugar’ to save time writing labels by hand. Ann Hinds casts her vote for the theory that the word came from a misreading of the double r in a 17th-century manuscript on ‘how to jarr plums’.
Finally, Chris Sladen (Christ Church, 1953) and Piers Burton-Page (Wadham, 1966) both hark back to an old rhyme in dog Latin: ‘Caesar adsum jam forte; Pompeius aderat.’ (Say it out loud for full punning effect.)
Anatoly Liberman’s verdict
Alas, if a word is of unknown origin, there must be a good reason for it. Guesswork may help, but it rarely does. The Caesar joke is as old as the hills of Rome. Perhaps I can even contribute to this folklore. One sometimes said jam jam in Latin (e.g. jam jam intellego, quid dicas ‘Now I do understand what you are saying’). Apparently, Engl. yum-yum goes back to this reduplication: something is very tasty, and you purr contentedly: ‘At last, at last’ (but in Latin, to show your parents that the money spent on you has not been wasted). We’ll leave j’aime to those in love with sweeter things than fruit preserves.
All the serious conjectures are reasonable, but there is no evidence for them, and that is why jam remains a word of unknown / uncertain / disputed etymology (professionals have been very successful in hiding their ignorance behind face-saving terms). The conficere-Einmachen idea makes excellent sense, but jam does not look like a calque of either. Nor do we know enough of the early technology of jam (despite the recipes) to insist that the ingredients were really jammed into jars. Perhaps they were, perhaps they were not. For the jambo/jambu ‘rose apple’ derivation I can even cite a parallel: there is the forgotten word rob meaning approximately the same as jam; it is of Romance origin. But did the first producers of jam think of their invention as an import from the Romance-speaking world, and was it apple jam that gave rise to the many sorts of confiture? Leo Spitzer was an outstanding scholar, but his suggestion that jam derives for Old French jame ‘pitch’ is fanciful. So much for French.
Finally, references to onomatopoeia are also apt. The sound of j, whether initial or final, has a strong expressive value in English. It is enough to pronounce and then look up the origin of jab, job, jaunt, jerk, jib, jinx, jitter, jog, and smudge, budge, nudge, dodge to recognize their register and sometimes to discover their doublets with ch- or -g, or -d. Therefore, jam could be an emphatic variant of cham, champ, or some other similar formation. Once again: perhaps it was, perhaps it was not.
By this time it must be clear why the etymology of jam is ‘uncertain’: we have an embarrassment of riches but want to come away with a single jewel, convinced that all the rest is paste.
Anatoly Liberman is a philologist specialising in Germanic phonology, etymology, medieval literature, mythology and folklore; and also in Slavic poetic translation and Russian literature. Since 1975 he has been professor of Germanic philology at the University of Minnesota, but has spoken at several Oxford University conferences and is published by OUP.
You can read more from Professor Liberman at his Oxford Etymologist blog.
Pots of jam made by Dr Joy Boyce will go out to Lesley Chamberlain for her ‘Einmachen’ observation, Denis Vandervelde and Stephen Waddams for their ‘rose-apple’ contributions, Pip Kirby for ‘champ’ and Bob Turvey for cheek.
Image by Skumer via Shutterstock.