At some point in the 1970s, Philadelphia coined the all-encompassing noun “jawn.” The word has remained a treasure in the city’s black lexicon and natives have long stamped it as an integral part of their vocabulary. Now, decades later, it’s officially being recognized as a ‘legitimate’ word in the English language, thanks to its potential inclusion in a forthcoming edition of the Merriam-Webster Dictionary.
As “jawn” gained popularity locally and began attracting outside attention, there’ve been disputes about the term’s origins. Some say that it’s a derivative of the word “joint,” a Philly pronunciation of a similarly all-encompassing word mostly used in New York City. Others, as a 2016 Atlas Obscura story points out, claim that it’s completely original.
Regardless of whether or not “jawn” has any antecedents, Philly natives have given it boundless range as a stand-in for just about any place, thing, and, in some cases, person. In the ’90s and early 2000s, it became more known thanks to the success of the city’s rap music scene. Still, it was an insular hometown gem. Growing up in Philly during that time, “jawn” wasn’t just a word that I heard among my peers or other young people. Both my parents used it, and still do — something remarkable, considering how quickly slang tends to cycles into and out of use from one generation to the next. When my mother said “Pass me that jawn,” she could’ve wanted me to pass her the remote or her purse. She didn’t have to name the thing in question, but her tone or eye contact let me know exactly what she was talking about every time.
When I asked my father, who was born and raised in Philly, about his relationship to the word, he said that he remembers also using similar words like “jam” and “joint” in the ’70s. But “jawn” had the least parameters and specifically belonged to Philly. “We used [jawn] interchangeably to describe a party, or location, or even an attractive woman,” he told me over the phone. The power and reach of “jawn” is a result of black people’s creative command of language. “For a lot of the words in our vernacular, we may not have delved into a meaning, but the sounds are important to us,” he continued.
When a person drags out a sentence like “That jaawnn craaazy,” for example, the elongated emphasis implies that there was something either very significant about this person, thing, or experience. Perhaps deciphering what a person is exactly referring to when they use the word sounds cryptic, but it’s pretty simple and the nuances of context are important and they make a big difference: I’m offended if I’m referred to as “the jawn” but flattered if I’m told “You look like a jawn.”
“The power and reach of “jawn” is a result of black people’s creative command of language.”
The acknowledgment of the word’s validity is decent, but this larger recognition makes me a little weary about the future of “jawn.” A certain mainstream embrace or semantic commandeering has happened with other words from black culture that’ve reached the mouths of white people across the country and ended up in one dictionary or another. Think about what happened to “twerk,” and “bling,” and “fleek.” I cringed when Tessa Mae Thompson’s character Bianca deployed it in the movie Creed. “It’s a noun,” she explained to her on-screen beau Adonis (Michael B. Jordan) while using objects on the table as examples. “These is jawns, this is a jawn.” It was cool to hear it in a major film but I knew this meant the word was vulnerable and exposed.
A part of me is protective of “jawn” because sometimes our greatest creations make it out only to perish too soon. I value the word’s ability to identify something that I can’t quite articulate while still being understood. It warms my heart when little children say it, especially when I can guess that no one has ever defined it for them. There’s no need, after all, because it’s ingrained in us.