Listener Roberta "Bobbie" Brown recently emailed the Curiosity Desk, after reading a story in the paper about Boston firefighters. In the piece, the author referred to them as "jakes." She wanted to know where that term comes from and how it came to refer to firefighters in the region.

Like our curious listener, I too have seen firefighters called “jakes” in the papers. And I first wanted to find out if "jake" is a term that firefighters themselves actually use. For answers, I headed to the Dedham Fire Station on Washington Street.

"It’s a compliment in the fire service when someone calls you a good jake," said Dedham Deputy Fire Chief Fred Loewen. "It means you know your job, and you’re doing your job."

And has Loewen been called a good jake?

"Of course I have," he said, smiling. "And I’ve called many of my brothers good jakes."

As for the term's origin, I asked fireman Steve Raftery, who has been with the department for 30 years.

"My father was a firefighter in Boston, and I heard him use the expression, but never really where it came from," said Raftery.

It was suggested that perhaps firefighter Joe Riley would know. He didn't, and he said I should talk to fireman Matt Munchback.

"I have no idea," said Munchback. "You want me to get Alex? Alex will probably know."

Alex was as much help as Munchback. And Deputy Chief Loewen — while clearly amused by the parade in and out of his office — finally stepped in and shared the origin story that he has always heard.

"[At the] turn of the century, the labor force in Boston was predominately Irish," said Loewen.

By the early 20th century, Irish immigrants and those with Irish roots had a near-monopoly on jobs in the Boston police and fire departments.

"And they all had a cousin Jackie coming over from the old country, getting hired on the job," said Loewen. From there, Loewen said the term Jackie became slang for a firefighter and evolved over time into jake.

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But there’s another — perhaps more likely — origin story. In the late 1800s, Boston installed the world’s first fire alarm system: boxes placed all around the city — all connected to central stations by telegraph.

"When firefighters were responding to and from places, they would use these morse code tappers to communicate to and from their headquarters," said fireman Joe Gleason, recounting an origin story he heard at fire-science school.

During World War I, the army also relied on telegraph systems to communicate. And the Army’s J-series telegraph machines, used in the trenches, were commonly called J-keys. As the ranks of the Boston Fire Department swelled with vets after the war, the term J-key was adopted for the tappers inside the fireboxes.

"So jake eventually formed from, 'I need a good J-key operator,'" said Gleason. "You know, 'That guy over there is great under pressure. He can communicate. That’s a good jake right there,'" he said.

That’s a story that former Boston Fire Commissioner Paul Christian said is plausible, as is a variation that he favors: Anyone could ring an alarm inside one of those old telegraph-connected fire boxes, but — in the early days — you needed a key to open it.

"And the keys were J-shaped," said Christian. "So the expression developed when a fire broke out to go get the J-key and it sort of evolved into get the jakes,” he explained.

Christian said that we will probably never know which theory is true. He has spent decades pouring over department archives and old newspaper clips seeking a definitive origin for the term, but to no avail.

"We have a small group of us that really have studied the history inside out," he said. "If it was out there, I think we would have discovered it by now."

One final note. The younger firefighters in Dedham told me that they all hear and know the term jake, but none of them ever use it. So, just as its true origin appears to be an open question, so too does its future as a New England firefighting tradition.