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

UnknownDan Nosowitz writes:

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.”

It is a word without boundaries or limits. Growing up in the suburbs just west of the city, I heard it used mostly to refer to objects and events. In the 2015 movie Creed, a character asks a sandwich maker to “put some onions on that jawn.” But it can get much more complex. It can refer to abstract nouns such as theories; a colleague of Jones routinely refers to “Marxist jawn.” It can also refer to people or groups of people. “Side-jawn,” meaning a someone with whom the speaker cheats on his or her significant other, “is a uniquely Philly thing as far as I can tell,” says Jones. “And not something you want to be.” via Pocket

I’ve run across other all-purpose, or almost-all-purpose, nouns in slang usage. Just last week, I was reading Tana French’s The Witch Elm, populated with a number of characters speaking vernacular Irish English. After being puzzled by several characters’ use of the word yoke, I finally figured out that it seems to serve a virtually identical purpose to jawn as a generic all-purpose substitute for anything. [Can any speakers of Irish English reading this confirm?]

But, of course, the word with perhaps the most widespread similar role in the vernacular as a generic, at least here in the US, is shit. I’m sure all of you speaking English in the US (and Canada??) have heard virtually all of the examples in the “Jawn” article with “shit” substituted for them:

  • “remember to bring that shit”
  • “put some onions on that shit”
  • “Marxist shit”
  • “Pass me that shit”
  • you can call something you like “the shit”
  • we refer to “my shit” to refer globally to our possessions, our sensibilities or style,  or specifically to our genitalia

Perhaps one difference is that shit stands in only for things. [Again,  Irish English speakers, what about yoke?] The assertion, then, that jawn is “unlike any other word in any other language” may relate to its usage for places, persons or groups of persons as well as things.  Can readers come up with other examples of generic nouns that also do so?

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