Written by Timothy Lewis (@TimothyELewis) – January 10th, 2018

Jawn (sometimes spelled “jaun”)



US dialect

noun: jawn; plural noun: jawns

  1. (chiefly in eastern Pennsylvania) used to refer to a thing, place, person, or event that one need not or cannot give a specific name to.

And yet, it is so much more. Jawn is contagious; jawn is convenient; jawn is comfortable. The informal versatility is such that it links members of the greater Philadelphia community in a way only surpassed by a booming “E-A-G-L-E-S” chant.

Jawn has managed to slip into the mainstream by way of 2015 blockbuster Creed, the next-generation follow up to Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky franchiseAs the scene opens, Michael B. Jordan’s Adonis Creed, formerly from Los Angeles, is found commenting, tongue in cheek, “so are you about to ‘jawn’ this, ‘jawn’ that, what’s a ‘jawn?’” Tessa Thompson, playing Bianca, introduces the term to the outside world, albeit with a very non-Philadelphian diction:

Somewhere in the late 1970s to early 1980s, New Yorkers began using the term “joint”, a supposed early relative of Philadelphia’s “jawn”. Both are believed to have originated in urban, African American-centric areas, within a few years of one another. However, it has become clear that the two words are not equal, with “jawn” evolving far more expressive elasticity than its predecessor.

As we know, “joint” encompasses numerous definitions, referring to human connective tissue, as well as a union between groups (ie a “joint-venture). “Joint” also represents multiple slang terms, often a synonym for prison; “my friend just got out the joint”; while also serving as terminology for a marijuana cigarette. Its furthest reaches extend to a variety of nouns, often times places — for example, the “Mexican joint” when referring to a Mexican restaurant. Jawn, adversely, has no preordained meaning.

A great article on the history of “jawn”, written by Dan Nosowitz, encapsulates the unique magic of the Philadelphian word:

The word ‘jawn’ is unlike any other English word. In fact, according to the experts that I spoke to, it’s unlike any other word in any other language. It is an all-purpose noun, a stand-in for inanimate objects, abstract concepts, events, places, individual people, and groups of people. It is a completely acceptable statement in Philadelphia to ask someone to ‘remember to bring that jawn to the jawn.’

Dan Nosowitz

As one can surmise, the last example given could not be replaced by “joint”, as it leaves far too much room for misinterpretation, unless it was literally supposed to mean “bring the marijuana cigarette to the prison”; an endeavor I personally would not recommend.

It may be a difficult pill to swallow that Philadelphia’s most noteworthy and sacred verbiage takes its inspiration from elsewhere, but that’s hardly the point. If you go back far enough, everything related to everything. 650 million years ago is when our ancestors’ genome diverged from fungi. “Jawn” is not “joint” and we are not mushrooms.

Spoken language goes so far beyond mere words. Context, voice inflection, and body language are just as important for communicating as the verbiage they accompany. The utility of “jawn” lies therein. It exists as a bridge across every brain fart. It’s a shortcut to meaning. It’s a dimension of expression for those just learning English. It’s a hack for trimming the fat of extraneous vocabulary.

We are experiencing evolution. Words are polarized, politicized, shaped by the experiences attached to them. This issue stems from words taking on an identity beyond their dictionary definition(s). When it comes to nouns, “jawn” eradicates this possibility. It cannot be manipulated or dirtied. “Jawn” supersedes taboo and rhetoric because it cannot be conditioned to mean any one thing. Because of its conceptual elasticity, “jawn” cannot trigger an automated reaction from the listener. It forces them to think.

I’ll provide a couple examples:

“This Donald Trump jawn sends a message to the entire world.”

In this case, jawn could mean “presidency”, “administration”, regime”, “policy”, or “bullshit”, each of which has a connotation. How it is said, the context in which it occurs, with what voice inflection, and the way in which I emote, all give indication to how I feel specifically about the “Donald Trump jawn”, along with what it means. Most importantly, it keeps the specific phraseology abstract. This allows me to impart feeling without being directly insulting or condoning. In turn, the listener can retort with more decisive rhetoric, or operate in the abstract neutral space created by leaving room for interpretation. “Jawn” provides the possibility for more open and conscientious conversation.

“Did you buy the jawn(s)? We have to get them ahead of time.”

Another important utility of “jawn” is that it works beautifully for maintaining discretion. Here, a parent could be talking with their significant other about Christmas presents in front of their child. It could also stand for tickets to a concert, alcohol for a party, a VIP table at a club, or a hotel for a weekend vacation. Based on the context, along with other modes of expression, a universal word that everybody knows can also be applied for purposes of secrecy. Those who know will know, and those who you seek to keep out of the loop will stay there, provided they aren’t so nosey as to pry.

“Is your jawn coming to the party?”

I’m going to take this time to illustrate something I find important. While the quote from the Dan Nosowitz article stated “jawn” may refer to individual people, it has a reputation for almost exclusively pertaining to women. This is not a habit we should maintain. It is objectification in its most blatant sense. Keep “jawn” genderless.

As displayed, it isn’t formality that makes language beautiful. The United States has been inventing new words, spellings, and dialects since conception. Now, in one of the nation’s earliest and most prominent cities, a progressive leap has been made. Philadelphia should be proud. Together, through “jawn”, we can revolutionize communication forever.

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