The etymology of 'jawn'

Please note: This article is published as an archive copy from Philadelphia City Paper. My City Paper is not affiliated with Philadelphia City Paper. Philadelphia City Paper was an alternative weekly newspaper in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The last edition was published on October 8, 2015.

Talking hoagies, young bols and 'yo' with linguist Ben Zimmer.

The etymology of 'jawn'

Jawn's been in the news lately — the Daily News' Bill Bender got the perfect quote from a witness to one of the many worrying building collapses, and "The whole jawn came down" will now live forever. We thought, then, that this was the perfect time to post this interview with linguist, lexicographer, Wall Street Journal columnist and former New York Times On Language columnist, UPenn Language Log-ger and all-around good sport Ben Zimmer, in which he sheds some light on the origins of "jawn," plus "hoagie," "chumpy" and other words from Philly’s regional lexicon. (Zimmer also has a new vocab-game app out — check it out!)

(Unrelated note: Did you know that google-image-searching "jawn" turns up almost entirely Sherlock slash-fic starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman? Because it definitely, definitely does.)


CP: First, can you do your best to define the word “jawn”?

BZ: So I’m not a native—I’m from central New Jersey, so not part of the greater Philly area. But my sense of it is that it comes from the way that “joint” was used in New York slang (particularly hip-hop slang), to refer to something in a positive way—like “That’s the Joint,” the song by Funky Four Plus One from 1981. But [jawn] got extended in different directions semantically; it could refer to not just something you admire or think of in a positive way, but as an all-purpose word to refer to different types of things and people.

CP: How do you find something like that out? How do you trace the history of something as ephemeral as spoken language?

BZ: It’s tricky. You try to first rely on what other people might have done; I looked at various slang dictionaries, but they really weren’t helpful because it’s pretty much a local thing, as opposed to “joint.” It seems to represent a pronunciation of the word, but also a local meaning of the word, which can be harder to find.

Fortunately, there are online resources. There are old Usenet newsgroups for rap and hip-hop fans, and they can go all the way back to the early ‘90s, when people might be using these terms and talking about how they are specific to Philly. “Jawn” was something that came up in the newsgroups and was discussed; I think it also entered this online rap dictionary that originally circulated on the Usenet but now has its own website. But from that period, it was identified as Philly slang.

You really need people with local knowledge. My knowledge of old-school Philly rap is pretty limited, so I’m sure I don’t know the best places to look for how that expression might have spread—if there were particular songs on local record labels that might have helped spread it.

It came up on the American Dialect Society mailing list, actually; someone was asking about it quite a while ago, and that’s just the sort of thing they like to try and figure out. There was a suggestion that it could have also been some sort of variation on “John,” the name, but people mostly talked about it as coming from “joint,” which seems like the most obvious etymology to me. “Joint,” meaning marijuana cigarette, gets extended into referring to anything that’s fine or pleasurable, as in “that’s the ______.” But it’s difficult in something like that there where there aren’t a lot of good sources, so there’s a lot of speculation. 

CP: I came up with a list of words that are generally acknowledged as being regional Philly slang; if you have any expert insights on them, I’d love to hear them. 


BZ: [Laughs.] I figured hoagie would be the first one you’d say.

CP: Obviously, yeah.

BZ: That is probably the number one response if you ask people to identify a term specific to Philly.

So what you call that type of sandwich has different regional variations. “Sub” has kind of taken over because of Subway, but hoagie, grinder and hero all have regional distributions to them, and “hoagie” is definitely identified with Philly and South Jersey. I grew up in central New Jersey, which had some Philly influence to it, so “hoagie” was something that other people said that people a bit south of us would say. We were kind of on the hero side of the hero/hoagie divide.

Of course, it’s not just the word but the pronunciation, because hoagie is a word that provides the vowel sound that is also most identifiable to Philly— which is “Oh” becoming “Aayoh.”

[We don’t have time to learn the fairly complicated Shavian alphabet for this piece, although we've always wanted to; the best approximation of this sound we can come up with is Mike Myers as Wayne or Dr. Evil saying “Oh.” in a bemused, abashed way. —ed.]

So when you hear someone saying “Hey, let’s go get a haayohgie,” you knew they were from Philly or South Jersey. So for me, you could sort of make fun of people for talking about hayohgies.


“Skeeve,” as in “skeevy” or “skeeved out”

BZ: I don’t think that’s specific to Philly—I was actually just looking that up. There’s a slang dictionary, Green’s Dictionary of Slang, that I reviewed for the New York Times book review; I was talking about all the interesting things on just one of the pages, and “skeeve” was on that page. Hold on, let me just open up to that page and see...

CP: I heard it originated in South Philly, but the Internet is full of interesting information that is not true.

BZ: Let’s see—[reading aloud] “Skeeve,” a noun meaning a disgusting person, from 1995; “skeevy” meaning disgusting, from 1996; showing up on campus language collected at the University of North Carolina. There are people talking about “skeeve” as a verb being common in Brooklyn—what’s interesting, and perhaps the people from South Philly might have insight on this, is there is a theory that it came from the Italian word meaning disgusting—schifoso. But that’s a questionable etymology. I’ve heard similar, not-necessarily-trustworthy etymologies for—is “yo” also on your list?

CP: Why, yes it is!


BZ: I’ve heard a couple of different explanations of that as being related to io, the Italian for “I.” There’s another theory of it coming from guaglione, which means “boy,” could be pronounced as Y-O in the sort of dialectical pronunciation that might be used in South Philly. Again, it’s an interesting theory, but hard to say how true that might be. 

Whether it’s accurate or not, people have linked “yo” to Philly since the movie Rocky, which did a lot to popularize “yo” as a way of getting someone’s attention. There were previous uses, different interjections—for instance, if someone is calling roll in the army, someone could respond with “yo,” meaning “present.” But in terms of trying to get someone's attention—“Yo, Adrian!” the way Rocky used it—I don’t think people were probably using it much outside of Philly before the movie came along.

What’s also interesting with “yo” is the strong identification with Italians in South Philly, but also African-Americans; that it becomes popular again through rap and becomes identified that way.


BZ: I don’t know that much, other than when I was hunting around about “jawn,” people were talking about it as the term that had previously been the all-purpose word for something good, or for something in general—a “thingamajig”-type word.

“Chumpy” was popular enough in African-American use in Philly that the potato chips that started being marketed here circa… 1990, maybe? …used that term, “Chumpies,” as the name of their potato chips. It was an African-American-owned business clearly using that local usage to help sell their potato chips [see also: Rap Snacks —ed.]. I don’t really know where it comes from, but it was a popular term in the ‘80s before “jawn” really took off.


“Bol” or “bul” (noun: a young man, esp. used by another young man to refer to an acquaintance or friend)

BZ: I’d be interested to look that up — it could be related to "boy" or it could be related to "bull." What's interesting there is that one of the aspect of the Philly dialect is what's called "L-vocalization," which basically means L's sort of turn into vowels or they disappear completely. Like, actually, with the name of the city Philadelphia — in a strong Philly dialect, those L’s drop away so the pronunciation of it is "Phi-deph-ya."

I am wondering if "boy"  and "bull" ended up becoming homophones — so what you would spell as B-O-L would sound a lot like B-O-Y and sort of sound like "Boyl." I’d want to look into that a little more, but I bet it has something to do with "bull" and "boy" meeting in the middle to be something like "Bol" where the L is not pronounced distinctly. I don’t know, it’s an interesting one.


“Down the shore”

BZ: I did an On Language column one summer about how “down the shore” was the only way that people from New Jersey and Philadelphia talk about the Jersey Shore, even if “down” isn’t necessarily going south. “Down” meaning “shoreward” is usage you find in other places along the East Coast, but it has become really crystallized in that phrase referring to the Jersey Shore.


“Shoobie” and “Benny”

BZ: The most likely explanation of [of “shoobie”] is it initially referred to a shoebox lunch that people coming from Philadelphia on the train would pack. The term for an outsider coming to the Shore from the New York direction is “benny;” the cast of Jersey Shore is almost completely made up of bennies, people from Jersey are very quick to point that out. And there are many, many different etymologies for that one.

What’s cool about that is seeing the way New Jersey gets divided up by the New York sphere of influence and the Philadelphia sphere of influence; you can find a dividing line along the Jersey Shore where people talk about bennys and where people talk about shoobies. It’s like I was saying before—you could make a dividing line between heroes and hoagies, especially in pronunciation of vowel, like we were talking about hhhhHoagies before. Have you ever watched the HBO show Boardwalk Empire?

CP: I have not.

BZ: I haven’t watched much of it either, but one complaint that people from New Jersey have about that show in terms of authenticity is that they sound like they’re from North Jersey, which doesn’t make any sense for Atlantic City. They would sound a lot more like Philly people, Atlantic City is part of that dialect region. So if they were trying to get people to sound like they really were from Atlantic City in that time period, they would be better off taking a cue from The Wire, for instance, because Baltimore is also part of the same dialect region as Philadelphia.

Some people think about urban slang as having to be black or white, there is an expected racial divide. But, obviously, things can go either way, like we were talking about with “yo,” which could have gone from Italian usage to African-American usage, or “jawn,” that came out of hip-hop language to become more widely popular; it might tell you something about interracial and interethnic dynamics in the city at the time. But, again, I’m just saying this as an outsider. 

CP: Do you think the Internet will destroy these pockets of regional slang?

BZ: It’s hard to say. Things that had been local can spread a lot more quickly if you’ve got someone like Nelly (to stay within the world of hip-hop) popularizing terms and pronunciations from St. Louis. But despite that, there still is a strong sense of regional identity that goes along with local forms of rap music — Atlanta or Philly or Chicago or wherever — and the markers of regional identity, like particular words or phrases, stay strong.

I think that’s not going away, but there’s a possibility for them becoming nationally known more quickly. If there's interest in, say, the Dirty South, or other regional hip-hop varieties, a bunch of related acts can become popular at the same time, and people know about them, but they still end up being regionally identified as coming from there and having that identifiable style and type of language.

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