The 1967 edition of the Dictionary of Jamaican English lists reggae as “a recently estab. sp. for rege”, as in rege-rege, a word that can mean either “rags, ragged clothing” or “a quarrel, a row”. Reggae as a musical term first appeared in print with the 1968 rocksteady hit “Do the Reggay” by The Maytals, but there are many different theories as to how the term originated. The music itself was faster than rocksteady, but tighter and more complex than ska, with obvious debts to both styles, while going beyond them both. Speaking to the term’s origins, reggae artist Derrick Morgan stated:
We didn’t like the name rock steady, so I tried a different version of ‘Fat Man’. It changed the beat again, it used the organ to creep. Bunny Lee, the producer, liked that. He created the sound with the organ and the rhythm guitar. It sounded like ‘reggae, reggae’ and that name just took off. Bunny Lee started using the world [sic] and soon all the musicians were saying ‘reggae, reggae, reggae
Reggae historian Steve Barrow credits Clancy Eccles with altering the Jamaican patois word streggae (loose woman) into reggae. However, Toots Hibbert said:
There’s a word we used to use in Jamaica called ‘streggae’. If a girl is walking and the guys look at her and say ‘Man, she’s streggae’ it means she don’t dress well, she look raggedy. The girls would say that about the men too. This one morning me and my two friends were playing and I said, ‘OK man, let’s do the reggay.’ It was just something that came out of my mouth. So we just start singing ‘Do the reggay, do the reggay’ and created a beat. People tell me later that we had given the sound its name. Before that people had called it blue-beat and all kind of other things. Now it’s in the Guinness World of Records.
Bob Marley is said to have claimed that the word reggae came from a Spanish term for “the king’s music”. The liner notes of To the King, a compilation of Christian gospel reggae, suggest that the word reggae was derived from the Latin regi meaning “to the king”.