Jawn, Philadelphia’s most malleable mouthful, is creeping closer and closer to the big time. Dictionary.com today announced it’s adding a definition of the word to its popular online lookup tool.
Born of Black Philadelphian discourse, the word’s meaning is here, there, and everywhere.
Jawn’s been endlessly debated, theorized, and utilized to various, occasionally aggravating, ends. Some may scoff at Dictionary.com, which is adding 566 new words to its internet-only repository, saying, “Wake me up when Merriam-Webster comes calling” — but they already did, in a 2017 essay on the term.
Narratives will vary, but here’s a (very) abridged origin timeline, per Merriam-Webster and other sources: Black New Yorkers’ colloquial use of the word “joint” entered the dense stream of Mid-Atlantic cultural exchange, unsurprisingly hitting Philly.
From there, Black Philadelphians’ accents — and the vastly expanded ways the word was used — made it a qualitatively different jawn. By the 80s, it was a hometown staple steadily growing in use. Today, jawn is for everyone — as long as you know what you’re doing.
What do Philadelphians think about the word’s increasing popularity and inclusion in the American lexicon? And does jawn even need a definition?
Robert Hart in West Philly questioned the decision to give it one.
“Why did they even want the jawn in a dictionary in the first place,” Hart said. “It’s like a local colloquialism.” He did see some use for the move: it could at least reduce the odds of someone throwing the word into a sentence at random, instead of using it “in proper context.”
Rasheeda Hampton, a North Philly native and Free Library worker, noted how misuse of such a capacious term really comes down to who you know and how you’re hearing “jawn” invoked.
“You can use it in different ways — if a person already knows the lingo,” Hampton said.
“It’s more like a noun, a person, place or thing,” she added. Though not the biggest fan of its use to describe a person, Hampton still embraces the word: “It’s the language of the city.”
Pamela, seated in Dilworth Park, agreed, though she noted the term’s relatively recent pedigree. Despite hearing it in conversation for decades, it’s not a mainstay in her vocabulary. “My son and my grandkids use it all the time, for everything,” she said.
Catching some shade in Malcolm X Park, a gentleman named Kenny was all about the word’s local importance — he was surprised at its spread. Though he’s lived in Jacksonville, Detroit, and other places, he never really heard it anywhere else.
“I don’t think it needs a definition, I think it defines itself,” Kenny told Billy Penn. “Because jawn is just a cultural thing in this city.”
Across differing understandings and levels of enthusiasm about the word’s step into the mainstream, one constant remained: Any definition of jawn had better mention Philly.
“All words have origins,” said West Philly’s Hart, noting that it’d simply be wrong to not mention the city when defining a word that’s only relevant because of Philadelphians’ tendency to say it.
Hampton, of the Free Library, has a simple reason for why mentioning Philadelphia is a must: “We want our credit for using it and creating it.”