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Clam, a Musical Mistake

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Ian in Jacksonville, Florida, wonders about why musicians use the word clam to mean “a mistake” or “an egregious musical error,” as in There are a lot of clams in there or We need to practice where the clams are regarding a musical passage that needs work. Occasionally, it’s used as a verb, as in You clammed. In the 1950s, the term clambake meant a jam with bad vibes. In the 1930s, a clambake was actually a good jam session, but the term went from a positive sense to a negative one, a process that linguists refer to pejoration. It’s possible that the term became skunked, which describes a term so widely used by the general public that the cool people came to disdain it. Robert S. Gold’s A Jazz Lexicon (Amazon) is a helpful resource for the language of jazz. This is part of a complete episode.

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