Infinite Jawn

I fell victim to a linguistic virus during my sophomore year of college. It ate away at my vocabulary and left me and the people I interacted with in a hazy state of ambiguity, never knowing exactly what I was saying. Due to the severity of the virus, my memory of this period in my life is disordered and vague. But, having since recovered, I’ll try my best to describe how this jawn happened.  

College can be a melting pot of regionalisms—slang specific to a certain area. You’ll hear “hella” from the Bay Area kids, or “lit” from the New Yorkers. You might even hear that a party was “hella lit,” from some Midwesterner trying to figure out how to use this new vernacular. 

I’m from Lower Merion Township, just west of Philadelphia, in a suburban area called The Main Line. All of our regionalisms are appropriated from just a few miles east within the city limits. Unlike Bay Area or New York regionalisms, Philly slang usually does not travel very far outside of city limits. It’s also not as intuitive as other slang. Still, given some context, most people can infer what it means without hearing the word used before. It’s a little harder to guess what someone means when they say, “This jawn is 30 minutes late. SEPTA (Southeastern Pennsylvania Transit Authority) is really drawlin’ today.” In this example, the word “drawlin’” is a verb used when someone or something is acting against your interest.

Perhaps the most recognized Philadelphia regionalism is the noun “jawn.” The word was actually just added to the the Oxford Living Dictionary (OLD) as well as Merriam Webster’s “Words to Watch” list. It is defined in the OLD as a word “used to refer to a thing, place, person, or event that one need not or cannot give a specific name to.” To me, a long-time user of  “jawn,” it seems almost counterintuitive to define the word. “Jawn” functions by having an empty definition, by taking on meaning from the context that surrounds it. The OLD’s definition of “jawn” is also nearly identical to the definition of “noun”: “a word (other than a pronoun) used to identify any of a class of people, places, or things,” the primary difference being the qualifier at the end of the definition of “jawn,” “that one need not or cannot give a specific name to.” This addition is critically important because it outlines the two biggest issues with the use of the word. The first problem is that it’s difficult to determine when one need not use an actual noun and when the use of “jawn” can leave other participants of a conversation confused. Second, “jawn” can lead to an inability to recall the right noun for a sentence. This is the linguistic virus to which I succumbed a few years ago.

“Jawn” is a noun that requires context to be understood. The OLD gives three examples of its use:

“These jawns are very inexpensive; the dude reporting this jawn has not the slightest clue; who is this beautiful jawn?”

Since we do not have context, the meanings of these examples are ambiguous. All we can tell is that the first example is referring to multiple things, the second is referring to a person, and the third is referring to an event. Functioning in a real conversation, the context should hopefully fill in this ambiguity. But what happens when the rest of the conversation is also littered with “jawn”? If I replaced every jawn in this jawn with jawn, this jawn would become very difficult to read. Eventually jawns would lose track of the jawn I’m trying to make, and, with good reason, stop reading this jawn.

Recently, the ambiguity of “jawn” has attracted some academic attention. Linguists trace the origin of “jawn” to the word “joint”—a New York regionalism only slightly less ambiguous than “jawn.” “Joint” has a similarly informal and malleable definition, but it is not used to refer to people. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary claims that “joint” originally described a “disreputable place where criminals met.” The word then underwent what is called “semantic bleaching,” losing its specific meaning. It came to simply mean “any place.” Linguists speculate that “joint” made its way out of New York and into the common vernacular with the release of Bronx-based hip-hop group Funky 4 + 1’s 1980 hit, “That’s the Joint.” This song alters the already bleached “joint” to mean “something good,” similar to how people might say, “that’s my shit,” or “that’s my jam.” And when “joint” made its way to Philadelphia, it underwent a semantic change.

In 1972, William Labov, professor of linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania, began teaching a course called “The Study of the Speech Community,” in which students recorded and transcribed conversations from neighborhoods all across Philadelphia. They produced the “largest single sociolinguistic corpus of any speech community,” called the Philadelphia Neighborhood Corpus. It contains 1,089 transcriptions of conversations from a variety of Philadelphia neighborhoods between people of various ethnic and socioeconomic groups. It also contains the first recorded use of the word “joint” in the same manner as “jawn” is used today. Taylor Jones, a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania, brings our attention to a 1981 recording of a young black man in West Philadelphia. The man in the recording, Jones explains, “used [‘joint’] to mean a bag, like a bag of chips, a physical place, a variety of different women—like Puerto Rican joints versus Irish joints—and his own genitalia.” Jones believes that the interviewer understood the usage, since he did not stop to ask about meaning. This suggests that the word could have carried its bleached meaning for a while prior to the 1981 recording.

The next step in the transformation of “joint” to “jawn” was the sound. Jones theorizes that the morphing of “joint” to “jawn” is an example of African American Vernacular English (AAVE). According to the International Phonetic Alphabet, the sound “oi” can also be pronounced “aw-ih.” If you pronounce the word “joint” slowly you’ll notice that, depending on your accent, you are actually saying “jaweent.” Jones explains that “African-American English often does a thing where a final P, T, and K becomes a glottal stop,” meaning that the final consonant is softened to a simple closing of the throat. You can hear this in the British pronunciation of “butter” as “buh-er.” 

Jones speculates that one reason that the transformation of “joint” to “jawn” occurred only in Philadelphia and not in New York, where “joint” originated, is the extreme level of segregation in Philadelphia. Philadelphia is the fourth most segregated city in the country—even worse than New York. In a predominantly black neighborhood, there is nothing to stop AAVE from altering the pronunciation of a word—especially a new word just being added to a city’s lexicon.

Although “jawn” was crafted by the city’s black population, it quickly spread to the rest of the city. I’m from just west of the neighborhood where the first recorded use of “joint” occurred, in a neighborhood just as segregated as the rest of the greater Philadelphia area. In the diversity map on the following page you can see a hard line between blue dots and green dots near “Penn Wynne.” My township is 5.6 percent black and neighboring west Philadelphia is 76 percent black, but my friends were eager to find new language to appropriate. So when I was in high school, everything was a jawn, and if a teacher scolded you for using the word “jawn,” then they were just drawlin’.

I was always resistant to new slang. Using cool catch-words felt as generic as cheering at a high school football game. I was so resistant to conformity that it wasn’t until junior year of high school that I began to use Philadelphia’s other famous regionalism, “Yo,” to address people when I couldn’t remember their names. I waited until Kid Cudi stopped smoking pot to use the word “dank,” and I never smoked “weed”—only “pot.” Needless to say, I attempted to keep “jawn” out of my vocabulary for as long as possible. But “jawn” is contagious; you hear your friend refer to four different items on your cafeteria lunch tray as “jawns,” and it starts to get into your head. I don’t think I said “jawn” throughout high school, but I definitely thought it, and the more I heard it, the more I continued to think it. 

This brings me to the second part of the qualifier in the OLD’s definition of “jawn”— “when one cannot give a specific name.” Judging from my experience with the word “jawn,” I don’t think that this part of the qualifier refers to nameless jawns, but rather to a jawn that one cannot recall the name for. I only felt comfortable using the word “jawn” during my sophomore year of college, after realizing that no one else knew the regionalism. Instead of feeling like a conformist, I felt like a trendsetter. Using a word that no one could understand afforded me an exclusive type of social capital. I think there was a feeling of hometown pride involved as well. I began to exaggerate “jawn,” using it as often as I could to demonstrate to my friends how versatile it could be. 

After a while, I was stringing together sentences using “jawn” three or more times. File names for my essays became “jawn2.docx,” and subjects of emails became “meeting about that jawn.” After a quick search of my computer, I found 191 items containing “jawn.” 

As I continued replacing all of my nouns with “jawn,” I started to struggle to recall the actual words I was replacing. All the people, objects, events, and places in my life began to blur together into one indistinguishable jawn. It sounds crazy, but my memory of this period of my life even suffers from lack of description. I was speaking to my friend from D.C. on the phone recently who uses a variation of the word “jawn,” pronouncing it more like “jaunt.” When I told him about my experience of overusing “jawn,” he laughed and said, “My dad used to yell at me for saying ‘jawn.’ He said I would forget all my nouns, but that actually happened to you!”

To better understand what’s actually going on here, we might want to turn to theory. Ferdinand de Saussure, the founder of structuralism, made a distinction between a word as an abstraction and a word as a vocalized utterance or image on a page. The sound-image points to the abstract concept, so the sound-image is a “signifier” and the abstract concept is a “signified.” Together, they make one coherent “sign.” But there’s no intrinsic reason why a specific sound must be used to refer to a given concept. Unlike instances outside of language, like smoke signifying fire, there’s no causal reason that the sound of the word “cat” should refer to the animal.

In the 1960s, a movement arose critiquing structuralism. Naturally, it was called post-structuralism (and was loosely associated with deconstructionism). The post-structuralists didn’t trust the purportedly stable equation signifier + signified = sign. Instead, they believed in what are called “free-floating signifiers,” signifiers that exist without one specific signified, words without set corresponding concepts. Rather than signifying one concept, a word could signify a multitude of different concepts, taking away any possibility for a word to be inherently meaningful.

“Jawn” is the ultimate embodiment of the free-floating signifier, and consequently can have a powerful effect on the structure of one’s language. Through my overuse of“jawn,” I had already deconstructed language. I was just some jawn that went to some jawn in Colorado studying some jawns trying to make up my jawn about what I wanted out of my jawn, and I had no problems if my jawns didn’t mean anything.

A map illustrating the segregation of greater Philadelphia. Each blue dot is a while person, each green dot a black person.

The OLD and Merriam-Webster Dictionary both use a criterion for new words that is primarily based on usage. Merriam-Webster, for example, employs linguists whose jobs are to hunt for new words. They look through a variety of publication sources, and when they come across a new word they fill out a citation card denoting where the word was found and the context in which it is used. When a word has enough citations, it’s considered for entry. In order to gain entry to the dictionary it needs to both be definable and have a degree of “currency,” meaning that the various users of the word expect it to be understood and don’t feel the need to supply a definition. I’m not sure whether “jawn” will get added to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Although it is widely used, and users give it a significant amount of currency, I’m not sure it will ever leave Philly, and this confines its usage to a small geographic region. 

Either way,  I don’t think there are that many people scrounging through dictionaries looking for new slang to use. Some linguists talk about the internet creating a more global language, but while I do think “jawn” is a particularly contagious word, I’m not sure if it has the power to spread through the internet. I think “jawn” is something you have to grow up with. You have to hear it in conversation. Otherwise, while you may understand it in context, you still won’t be able to comprehend the practically limitless usage of “jawn.” Regardless of whether or not “jawn” transcends its status as a regionalism, it will always have a special place as a void in my brain. But it’s just not my jawn anymore.