Philly Noun 'Jawn' Is Unlike Any Word on the Planet

A linguist traces its roots, explains its meaning
By Elizabeth Armstrong Moore,  Newser Staff
Posted Mar 25, 2016 7:42 AM CDT
Philly Noun 'Jawn' Is Unlike Any Word on the Planet
A pedestrian walks along Independence Mall, Thursday, Nov. 8, 2012, in Philadelphia.   (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

If you've ever spent much time in Philadelphia, you've probably heard the word "jawn." But what does it mean? Local news station CBS 3 asked just that in February, and Atlas Obscura digs even deeper with local linguist Taylor Jones to get to the bottom of the "enduring mystery." Turns out that part of what makes the word so tricky to explain, and thus replicate elsewhere, is its nebulous nature—because "jawn" appears to be unlike any other word in any language, and is a stand-in for pretty much any noun, even abstract ones. As Atlas Obscura puts it, "It is a completely acceptable statement in Philadelphia to ask someone to 'remember to bring that jawn to the jawn.'" But its incredible flexibility means it's not always used in a flattering way. Think "side jawn," or a person someone is, ahem, seeing on the side.

Unfortunately for many native Philadelphians, the closest word linguists have found in the evolution of "jawn" appears to be "joint," which has its roots in New York when Bronx hip hop group Funky Four Plus One released hit single "That’s The Joint" in 1981. "Sigh," laments the blog Philebrity. "Can't we just have one thing that is truly our own? Besides cheesesteaks and shame that is." Philadelphia magazine, meanwhile, notes that the word made an "extended appearance" in Creed last year, and that it's far from dead: "I base this on anecdotal evidence, but it's pretty strong: All of my girlfriend's students at a middle school in Chester use it frequently." Still confused? So are the commenters on this Jezebel thread, one of whom asks: "So it’s like 'smurf'? I've smurfed the smurf into the smurf and now the smurf is smurfing and crying on the floor. But with jawn. Something like that?" (Have you heard how Norwegians use the word "Texas"?)

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