Jawn: Philadelphia’s Multi-Purpose Slang Word, Explained

Jawn: Philadelphia’s Multi-Purpose Slang Word, Explained

September 15, 2021

“Pass me that jawn.” “This jawn is packed.” “He’s a good jawn.”

If you’re from Philly, none of the above sentences may sound strange to you. If you’re coming to us from outside of Pennsylvania’s borders, they might have you scratching your head. Jawn is a beloved and time-honored slang word, or colloquialism, that’s been making the rounds in the greater Philadelphia area for decades.

Linguists have difficulty pointing to another word that can be used for so many different things. A jawn can be a person, a place, an adjective, or a stand-in for just about anything. But where did it come from?

Keep reading to get the backstory on the word and why Philly locals sprinkle it on top of so many of their sentences. If you are, in fact, a local and looking to show off your love for the city of brotherly love, check out our Philadelphia collection, filled with jawn t-shirts and local sports gear.

Where Did Jawn Come From? 

How jawn got so popular is a mystery, but most experts agree we can trace the word’s origins back to the term “joint.”

This is gonna get a little bit word-nerdy. Please take notes as there will be a quiz.

Joint can mean the point in which two bones meet, but in the middle of the 20th century, New Yorkers started to use it to describe a place or situation. 

In 1939, Cab Calloway gave “joint” its first unofficial definition in his Hepcat Dictionary, created to give legitimacy to a new world of slang. Used in a sentence, Calloway declared that “the joint is jumping” means “the place is lively.” This is still widely used across the U.S. today — think about your local pizza joint.

Over the next few decades, using joint as a synonym for place grew in popularity. In the 1970s, however, it expanded to mean “thing” as well. The Sugarhill Gang’s 1979 hit song, “Rapper’s Delight,” included the line, 

“​​And when the sucker MCs try to prove a point/
We're Treacherous Trio, we're the serious joint.”

And so joint came to define a variety of things and places. But we’re not here to talk about joint, are we?

To understand what happened next, you need to know the Mid-Atlantic accent and African American Vernacular English. Let’s start with the former. As you go further north, the “oi” sound becomes more pronounced. Southerners tend to drop the “ih” sound from “oi,” making joint sound more like jaunt in places like Washington D.C. Philly lands somewhere in between.

Jawn gets even more complex when you consider the racial demographics in Philadelphia, a highly racially diverse city. AAVE is a variety of English created by Black Americans. It’s commonly used within Black communities but is also widely influential in the language of American culture overall.

Frequently in AAVE, speakers will drop the pronunciation of p or t if they appear at the end of a word. Instead, they’ll introduce a phonetic movement called a glottal stop, essentially cutting off the word without actually pronouncing the last letter. This is likely how jawn lost the “t” from joint. For that reason, Black Philadelphians are widely credited for originating jawn and its many definitions.

Okay, the etymology class is over. Let’s talk about how jawn is used.

A Guide For When and How to Use Jawn 

Another element that distinguishes the jawn of Philadelphia from the joint of New York City is how it’s used. New Yorkers regularly refer to objects or places as joints, but the use-cases end there. Jawn can mean so much more.

For that matter, it’s used dramatically more than joint. Walk down the streets of Philly, and you’re likely to hear jawn in nearly every sentence. In that way, it resembles more of a filler word, like “like.”

It’s hard to list all the ways jawn can be used but here are the most popular definitions. 

1. Jawn: Singular Thing 

This is a popular one. You can use jawn similar to how you’d use the term “thinga-ma-jig.”

For example, if you’re sitting on the couch and the remote control is a few feet away from you, you might ask the person next to you to “pass me that jawn.” With some gesturing and context clues, most people will understand what you mean.

Here’s another example. “Can you go to Allegiant’s Philly collection and get me a jawn t-shirt?” In this case, you’d go here and check out our baseball jawn t-shirt. 

2. Jawns: Group of Things

That said, jawn isn’t limited to singular items.

If you just picked up a new pair of sneakers that you’re especially proud of, you could say to a friend, “Check out my new jawns.”

Is it starting to make sense? Good. Let’s make it more complicated.

3. Jawn: A Situation or Place 

This definition is more closely aligned with joint. Jawn can describe any place, event, situation, or establishment. A restaurant is a jawn. An event is a jawn. A car is a jawn.

Let’s say you were asking your friend if they were going to a popular party. You’d say, “Are you going to this jawn? I heard it’s gonna be packed.”

Another fun application of jawn in this case? Using it twice. “Can you bring that jawn to the jawn?” is a real sentence that is totally acceptable in Pennsylvania’s biggest city.  

4. Jawn: A Person 

A noun is defined as a place, thing, or person, and true to form, jawn can also be stretched to refer to the last. A jawn could be some guy walking down the street or a pack of people, but it’s commonly used to describe a woman involved in an extra-marital affair.

This is known as the “side jawn.” We’ll leave that one up to your own interpretation. We’re just reporting the facts here. 

5. Jawn: An Idea 

Lastly, jawn can be used to saddle up with an idea or concept. This one gets a little complex, but it’s really just a stand-in for thing or theory.

Say you were a student at Temple University (let’s go owls), and you were studying economic theories for class. In researching the roots of communism, you might say you were “reading up on your Marxist jawn.” As absurd as it may sound, we are sure that phrase has been thrown around the Temple libraries many times. 

Jawn is a Philly Treasure 

Are you ready to introduce jawn into your vocabulary? If you’re outside of Philadelphia, it may require some explanation. There’s nothing else like it.

In fact, most linguistics experts agree that jawn is something of an anomaly. You’d be hard pressed to find another word in English or any language for that matter that can be used in so many ways. Whether it’s referring to a soda or a soiree, we’re grateful to jawn for all its versatility and to the people of Philadelphia for giving us such a spectacular word.

Want to get some jawn jawn? Check out our jawn basketball t-shirt to rep your love for Philly. 

 

Sources:

Some Jawn About 'Jawn' | Merriam-Webster

The Enduring Mystery of ‘Jawn,’ Philadelphia’s All-Purpose Noun | Atlas Obscura


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