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Someone just asked me in chat what a missed note in music is called. Without hesitation, I replied, "A clam." It's what I've always heard in academic and professional settings since forever.

Only now, having to explain its usage and origin, I went looking and found only informal origins and folk-etymology explanations. One such was the notion that it is derived from the expression "to clam up," meaning to fall silent (see Etymonline, which attests it as American from 1916 while noting that the word clam itself has been used as an interjection meaning ‘clam up’ since the 14th century). But there are problems with that. For one thing, a "clam" note is one that is played instead of the actually written or appropriate note. In other words, it sounds ... something that is the opposite of silence.

Here's another attempt at explaining the origin:

The origin of using the word "clam" to describe a missed note is rooted in
the theatre TTBOMK. As I understand it, actors would describe an untimely entrance or forgotten line as "making a clam." Certainly, if that was the case, horn players in the pit would have readily taken up the use of the word and spread it around the musical community.

The "TTBOMK" gives it away as folk etymology, and the argument that follows is what I will charitably call less than rigorous.

Still, it does demonstrate that I'm not the only one who's ever heard the term. And really, almost everywhere I've ever played music the term has come up (though not about my playing—honest!). It's also not the only term used for a missed note (one I especially loved was "approximatura," which played nicely off the musical term appogiatura, but that's a story for another day).

And The Word Detective says:

The likening of a closed mouth, or the human mouth in general, to the bivalve sort of “clam” may underlie the use of “clam” to mean a missed or flubbed note, especially if the term originated in connection with wind instruments. This usage dates back to at least the early 1950s and since then has been applied to an error in any sort of musical or theatrical performance (“Bing Crosby … always said, ‘Leave the clams in, let ’em know I’m human,'” New York Times, 1991). Perhaps the “error” sense of the term lies in the failure of one’s “clam,” or mouth, to perform correctly.

... which is anything but definitive. Other possibilities listed in the piece are softened by statements like "it seems entirely logical that ..."

So can anybody provide an actual origin story for use of this term in this context?

  • What is TTMBOK? – Mitch Apr 17 at 15:21
  • @Mitch: "To the best of my knowledge?" (Note the missed note, which we shall henceforth call a clam by extension). And the mistake in ordering appears to be yours. ^_^ – Robusto Apr 17 at 15:33
  • Ugh. Nevermind. I thought it was some reference to the particular theater. – Mitch Apr 17 at 15:50
  • Unsure. Is there any relation to the Latin clam (secretly or privately - not that a missed note is necessarily secret or private)? – TaliesinMerlin Apr 17 at 15:52
  • Interesting question. I never knew a missed note was called a clam. My immediate thought was that it might be related to clamour (in the sense of a disharmonic clangour), which an incorrect note can sometimes sound like. That’s just more random speculation, though. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Apr 17 at 15:54
5

The earliest coverage of clam in the sense of "mistake or misplayed musical note" that I've been able to find is in Harold Wentwoth & Stuart Flexner, Dictionary of American Slang, first edition (1960):

clam n. ... 5. a mistake ; a boner 1952: "Radio men speak no worse English than the general average of American professional men, and ... on the average there are not really so horribly many out-and-out clams coming over the air." Letter in N.Y. Her[ald] Trib[une], Apr. 3, 24/5.

J.E. Lighter, Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang (1994) cites the 1952 instance reported in Wentworth & Flexner as its first recorded occurrence of the usage, but then adds a slightly later occurrence, from 1955, and still later ones from 1964 and 1991:

clam n. ... 5. Entertainment Industry. a mistake, BONER; (Jazz) a misplayed note. 1952 in DAS. 1955 Down Beat (Nov. 30) 47: I'd say that was a band that doesn't work together regularly ... because there were a few clams in the ensemble. 1964 New Yorker (Apr. 25) 195: Clams proliferate. 1991 N.Y. Times (Dec. 1) H 33: Bing Crosby ... always said, 'Leave the clams in, let 'em know I'm human.'"

Robert Chapman & Barbara Kipfer, Dictionary of American Slang, third edition (1995) reports that the expression goes back to the 1940s but does not cite any historical examples:

clam ... 4 n 1940s jazz musicians A wrong or sour note; =CLINKER

Coincidentally (or not), Chapman & Kipfer also notes that clambake had a special meaning in jazz circles, starting in the 1930s:

clambake ... 2 n 1930s jazz musicians =JAM SESSION

So if clam originated as a jazz term in the 1940s, rather than more broadly as an U.S. entertainment industry term by the early 1950s, a clam (wrong note) may have referred to the sort of mistake that a jazz musician would expect to encounter more frequently at a clambake (jam session) than at a formal, paying performance.

Clarence Major, Juba to Jive: A Dictionary of African-American Slang (1994) lends some support to this theory in its entries for clam and clambake, both of which cite entries that originated in Robert Gold, A Jazz Lexicon (1964):

Clam n. (1940s–1950s) in jazz, a misplaced note. ([Jazz Lexicon], p. 59) Example: "The band isn't in good shape tonight. Too many clams." ...

Clambake n. (1930s–1950s) an "ad lib {jam} session ... not in the groove"; a "swing" or jam session; (1950s) a jazz or rhythm-and-blues musical affair that doesn't come off well. ([Jazz Lexicon], p. 58) ...

And H. Brook Webb, "The Slang of Jazz," in American Speech (1937) confirms that clambake was used to refer to a jam session in the 1930s [combined snippets]:

CLAMBAKE. Same as jam session.

...

JAM SESSION. An after hour's gathering of musicians of the hot persuasion from different bands, for relaxation, refreshment, and to jam a few numbers with everyone cutting a lick or two when the spirit moves.


I'm not entirely sold on the clam-by-way-of-clambake explanation, in part because it doesn't persuasively indicate why a word chosen presumably for its pleasant associations with relaxed good times (clambake) should have yielded a derogatory term for faulty musicianship (clam), and in part because it isn't clear to me that clam originated as jazz talk rather than in the wider world of U.S. entertainment.

Nevertheless, I think that 1930–1952 is very likely the approximate origin period for both clambake and clam in the relevant senses. And any better explanation of the origin of clam as "mistake" should devote at least a little time to explaining why the jazz terms clam and clambake are not related.

  • 1
    Very nicely researched, crafted, and argued. I'll hold off on the checkmark for a little while on the minuscule chance that someone comes up with a better, more exhaustive treatment. But I wouldn't want to hang from a rope until that happens. – Robusto Apr 18 at 13:31
  • I've also heard "clambake" used to mean a performance with a lot of clams (wrong notes). I don't know how widespread that usage is, but the word may have developed two parallel meanings in music slang, especially if one meaning was mostly confined to jazz. – Literalman Apr 19 at 19:44

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