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Gather round the campfire, jawns and jawnettes. This is the story of how Philadelphia’s favorite all-purpose noun came to be. So, what’s the meaning of jawn in Philly?
If you’ve been in the city long enough, you’ve surely heard the endearing, local pronunciations of words like “water” (wooder) or “Eagles” (Eggles). Maybe you’ve even brushed up on your Philly slang and deemed yourself to be an expert in the field. Whether you realized it or not, “jawn” has quickly become popularized in the Philly lexicon, making appearances in highway billboards, Hollywood blockbusters, and local branding materials.
With “jawn” gaining national recognition, many outsiders are left to wonder, what’s the jawn with jawn?
What is It?
Simply answered, jawn is a stand-in for, but not limited to, objects, places, people, and events. Jawn can mean nothing and everything. It’s similar to the word ‘thing’ in use but carries more local flair.
Jawn relies heavily on context, ranging from the positive: “that jawn is fire,” to the negative: “that jawn is weak.” This multipurpose word can also be singular or plural, depending on usage.
While jawn has a long, documented history within the Black community, corporations and ad agencies have only recently made jawn the commercialized version of what it is today.
Where does it come from?
Apologies in advance to all die-hard Philadelphians, but the word “jawn” actually comes from the New York slang term, “joint.” As far back as the 1880s, “joint” was being used as a stand-in for some nouns in NYC, but not ALL nouns. Think “pizza joint” or “let’s case this joint.” The word that many New Yorkers used to mean “place” or “spot” seeped into Philly culture by way of music.
Linguists have noted that the popular 1981 single “That’s the Joint” by early Bronx hip-hop group, Funky Four Plus One, was the catalyst for the word’s broad transformation into the Philly jawn we know today, from PLACE noun to an all-purpose noun.
While the actual discovery of a word is nearly impossible to track, University of Pennsylvania linguist, William Labov, made field recordings of local Philadelphians in the ‘70s in which he captured the use of the word “joint.” Despite using the New York version of this word, the recorded man used the word to refer to to a bag, a place, women, and even his own…anatomy. Thus, upon entering Philly, the meaning of “joint” began to shift and the change in pronunciation was quick to follow.
As words travel across state and country lines, they change in pronunciation and usage. As the word “joint” took a trip down south, it became ‘jawn’ in Philadelphia, and later “jaunt” in Washington D.C.
While jawn’s lineage tracks back to the Big Apple, Philadelphians have adapted the word to expand beyond place. In its current usage, “jawn” can simultaneously connote the place, the person in the place and the activity the person in the place is performing. It has become all-encompassing in a process that expert linguists call, “semantic bleaching.” This term refers to words that originally have a small number of specific meanings, but then, over time, lose the nuance of meaning and become much more broad and general terms.
How do you use it?
Now that you’ve got the basics down, are you ready to test this jawn out? Our first piece of advice is not to use “jawn” all willy-nilly. You should never shoehorn jawn into a sentence just to prove your Philly slang proficiency.
But, when the time feels right (and you’ll know when it’s right), slip it into conversation. For instance, say you’re at a hoagie shop and an employee asks if you want onions. You can casually reply, “Yeah, throw some onions on that jawn.”
When you take your first bite and it’s as delicious as you imagined, you can flash a bready smile and say, “Now, that’s a good jawn.”