If a visitor to Philadelphia becomes completely confused trying to figure out what the locals are saying to one another, the mysterious word “jawn” might be to blame. “Jawn” is one of the city’s favorite, most prized expressions. By virtue of having no specific meaning whatsoever, it can be employed to mean all kinds of things. And that, in essence, is what makes it great. One Philly resident might reasonably say to another, “That jawn was hot.” That statement, while baffling to most of the country, would be easily understood in the City Of Brotherly Love. The word has even crept into films like Creed. “Jawn” has no precedent or equivalent in any language, English or otherwise, so naturally it is of great interest to linguists. Dan Nosowitz investigates the versatile, multifarious word in a piece for Atlas Obscura entitled “The Enduring Mystery Of ‘Jawn,’ Philadelphia’s All-Purpose Noun.” The fact that “jawn” is a noun is one of the few points on which everyone can agree. The article illuminates some aspects of “jawn,” but other corners remain shadowy and obscure.
One thing that the experts agree upon is that “jawn” is likely the offspring of “joint,” already a slang term with its own rich history. Another shocking revelation is that the term more than likely comes from New York City, an accusation that any true native of Philly would find appalling. Linguists say that although “jawn” was born in New York, it truly came of age in Philadelphia, probably sometime in the late 1970s or early 1980s. A turning point, according to the article, was the classic hip-hop track “That’s The Joint” by Funky 4 Plus 1. It was one of the first recorded instances of “joint” being used as a generic term for something good. The people of Philly took that idea and ran with it. Now, “jawn” can be positive, neutral, or negative. It’s an example of what the experts call “semantic bleaching.” The article also delves into the racial politics behind “jawn.” Philadelphia is one of the most racially segregated cities in America, so it’s possible that the word began living a double life in white and black communities, respectively. As Nosowitz aptly puts it: “Jawn is a whole world, unto itself.”