jam

The readings for today: from the Old Texts, Lewis Carroll; and two from the New Texts, P.G. Wodehouse and Rihanna.

The Old Text. Carroll, Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There (1871):

“You couldn’t have it if you did want it,” the [White] Queen said. “The rule is, jam to-morrow and jam yesterday – but never jam to-day.”
“It must come sometimes to ‘jam to-day’,” Alice objected.
“No, it can’t,” said the Queen. “It’s jam every other day: to-day isn’t any other day, you know.”
“I don’t understand you,” said Alice. “It’s dreadfully confusing!”

— jam ‘a sweet spread or preserve made from fruit and sugar boiled to a thick consistency’ (NOAD)

The first New Text. Wodehouse, Inimitable Jeeves (1923):

The only section of the audience that really seemed to enjoy the idea was the Tough Eggs, who yelled with enthusiasm. It was jam for the Tough Eggs.

— jam ‘something very enjoyable’ (GDoS)

The second New Text. Rihanna, “Bring It Back” (2005):

… I wanna hear my jam again…
… Play my joint again
Play my jam and
Send this one out to me
Bring it back again

— one’s jam ‘one’s favorite song’

You can listen to the song here.

The occasion for the readings. From Monica Macaulay on Facebook this morning:

Student who rarely comes to class (intro to morphology) and got an F on the second midterm [complaining about the grade]: “I can’t understand this because morphology is my jam.”

— intending to convey something like ‘morphology is my (favorite) thing’, a broadening of the ‘one’s favorite song’ sense. Monica found further examples, including a 2017 occurrence of “Yoga: It’s My Jam” from a blogger writing about fitness.

David Costa chimed in:

congrats, this is my first exposure to the saying “X is my jam”

I didn’t recall having heard the usage myself, though I must just not have attended to it in the Rihanna song (and elsewhere). The ‘one’s song’ usage — call it NewJam — seems to have appeared relatively recently (1970s or 1980s), originally from black speakers, though it’s now used more generally.

I’m assuming that NewJam is related to the musician’s sense of jam. From NOAD:

verb jam: 3 [no object] informal improvise with other musicians, especially in jazz or blues: the opportunity to jam with Atlanta blues musicians.

noun jam: 3 [a] (also jam session) an informal gathering of musicians improvising together, especially in jazz or blues. [b] (especially in dance or urban music) a song or track: an ultra catchy jam, driven by the drums but given substance by the interjection of horns | the band dedicated about a quarter of the set to new jams.

one’s jam is then, roughly, ‘what one likes to jam to’.

Meanwhile, there’s a set of slang jam senses referring to pleasure, derived from the food noun, going back to the early 19th century. From GDoS:

noun-2 jam [SE jam, the fruit conserve] 1 in context of pleasure, advantage [orig. sporting jargon real jam, anything exceptionally good]. (a) profit, an advantage. [1st cite 1833] (b) something very enjoyable. [1st cite 1844] (c) anything easy. [1st cite 1882]

NewJam shares with these, especially with subsense (b), positive affect, so GDoS proposes to see it merely as a recent instance of jam ‘something very enjoyable’:

[under (b):] 1997 Da Bomb Summer Supplement 9: Jam … 2. (n.) A really good song.

This strikes me as wrong-headed. The other GDoS cites are almost all BrE, and sound like it to my American ears — note Wodehouse above (from GDoS) — while NewJam seems to be specifically AmE and still associated with vernacular black speech (even if it’s diffused to a wider set of speakers). NewJam is a genuinely new development.

Lexicography is hard. Let’s go dancing.

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