More Culture:

September 07, 2023

How 'jawn' evolved from regional slang to a dictionary entry added the Philly term to its lexicon this week, but its history can be traced through the Jim Crow era and early 1900s sports columns

Jawn has officially made the history books, as the all-purpose Philadelphia slang was added to a leading online dictionary this week. entered jawn into its lexicon on Wednesday, as part of its latest rollout of 566 new entries. Described as an informal noun "chiefly (from) Philadelphia," the term is now defined as "something or someone for which the speaker does not know or does not need a specific name."

Philadelphians have long used jawn to describe just about anything — a person, a sandwich or just a general situation. But it's enjoyed something of a cultural renaissance, or, some might say, oversaturation in the past few years thanks to its use in mainstream hits like "Creed" and "Abbott Elementary." Merriam-Webster added jawn to its list of "words we're watching" in 2017, a robust collection of terms that are on the lexicographers' radar but haven't quite met the dictionary's criteria.

"It's certainly in the pipeline, but the fact is there are a lot of words in the pipeline," Peter Sokolowski, editor-at-large of Merriam-Webster, said with a laugh. "What that really means is it requires just those last few editorial steps, which involve making sure with research that the word is found in print, and that it's increasingly found in print. It'll probably be in our dictionary soon."

Linguists generally believe that jawn is an evolution of the word "joint," which, Merriam-Webster notes, was used to describe seedy places where criminals met or criminal activity happened in the mid-1800s. But "juke joint," another slang term, carried a very different meaning for Black communities in the early 20th century.

"It used to be a word that was used by African American Southerners to refer to clubs and bars where they had a safe space and they could gather together, especially during Jim Crow," said Andrea Beltrama, a postdoctoral researcher in the University of Pennsylvania's linguistics department. "Times in which being able to gather together was definitely not taken for granted."

Over time, joint experienced what linguists call semantic bleaching as its use grew increasingly less specific. It was no longer a criminal hotbed nor a community club, but simply a place. And once early rappers and hip-hop artists from the wider New York City region got their hands on it, joint became even vaguer. Philadelphians added a bit of phonetic bleach to the mix by dropping the "t" and adopting jawn.

That's the general consensus, but as with any word, it's not the only story. Jawn appears as a substitute for the name John in the story "Lazy John," published in a 1927 collection of Black Southern folklore, as well as in the Mr. Dooley humor column, which was written in the voice of an Irish bartender in Chicago and ran in national syndication (including in the Philadelphia Times) beginning in the late 1800s.

This use was also seen in Philly sports journalism around the turn of the century, as Inquirer reporters frequently referred to the minor league baseball team the Johnstown Johnnies as "the Jawns." The same was true for Phillies player John Titus — who already had a much funnier nickname, Tightpants — and champion boxer Jack O'Brien. After O'Brien lost to Stanley Ketchel in the summer of 1909, his recent opponent Jack Johnson told reporters he "was satisfied to box the Philadelphia Jawn the way I did."

As history shows, jawn has been a versatile term for ages. But despite its innumerable uses, jawn rarely confuses the listener, which lends it some of its power. According to Beltrama, this is a phenomenon linguistics call context-based reasoning. It is seen around the world, in other cities like Bologna, Italy, where "bagaglio," meaning a piece of luggage, is used for just about everything. 

"We always kind of know exactly what we're talking about," he said. "This is a multipurpose word that can be used to basically pick out anything we can think of, but yet in a context, we always know what type of specific object jawn or bagaglio or whatever expression of this type we're using refers to."

Slang has become much easier to spread through social media, where terms may be typed and sent to millions with the press of a button. This also explains why terms like jawn — as well as "yeet," "hangry" and "on fleek" — are entering dictionaries, which rely heavily on printed examples of use, much faster than they have in the past.

"It used to be that informal English was the least recorded kind of English, which made it the slowest to enter the dictionary," Sokolowski said. "Now of course, because of social media and texting, a lot of times informal language is essentially written before it's ever spoken. And so there are terms like 'lol,' for example, that simply wouldn't have existed without this technology. But they are enormously productive."

Perhaps the biggest reason for jawn's prominence, however, is Philadelphia pride. Regional slang is a form of community glue that allows the speaker to instantly project identity, Beltrama says, no matter where they are. And as the widespread use of local sports slogans demonstrates, Philadelphians love to announce themselves with their own language.

"Obviously being from Philly doesn't just mean being a resident or having been raised within the boundaries of the city that we know as Philadelphia," he said. "Whenever we think of a place, a place is not just a physical location, it's a very complex and constantly evolving set of traditions, of shared emotions, of shared customs, of food, of sports teams, of qualities. If you think of Philly, we think of something that's gritty, for example, or unpretentious. We can really come out with a long list of qualities and traits that we link up just to the idea of someone being from Philly.

"Once you can have access to the notion of a place, you pretty much have access to anything you can imagine as being part of a human experience."

Follow Kristin & PhillyVoice on Twitter: @kristin_hunt | @thePhillyVoice
Like us on Facebook: PhillyVoice
Have a news tip? Let us know.