Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Jawns 101

I moved to Philadelphia about a year ago, although it wasn’t until the beginning of summer 2008 that I first encountered the word jawn. In June, I started work at a diner/bakery that was staffed mostly with black males, ages about 18-50, who peppered their language with a range of pretty typical urban slang. Gradually, though, this one word was folded in, and by the end of the summer it had reached a point of overuse that approached outbreak level, at times nearly once a sentence.

For months, I heard the word as join’ or jon’. I assumed it was an abbreviation of joint, which we’ve all heard or used to function similarly as a kind of all-purpose pronoun (“that's my joint” or “that's the joint”). It wasn’t until about the billionth time this summer that I heard the word that I was forced to ask someone point blank what the fuck was going on. By the end of the summer, I was working at an inner-city school, and I began hearing it literally three and four times in a single sentence. Hell, three or four times in a sentence fragment.

So, I started to ask my roommate, “Have you heard anyone use this word--” I was cut off, “You mean, ‘jawn?’” Apparently, everybody knew but me. My roommate, who hears the word in her office apparently as much as I do at school, explained that it wasn’t a slurred version of joint but a unique word spelled j-a-w-n that rhymes with prawn or yawn. I didn’t believe her. I understand appropriating existing words (skeet, to use my favorite example of the last five years), but you can’t just invent words, right? I held onto my jon’ theory until the next day when, with a little time left in the hour, I put it to my fifth period class.

“Guys, I have a white question.”

Laughter.

“What is jon’?”

Uproarious laughter.

My spelling and pronunciation were corrected, and the already obviously versatile word was defined for me as, “Anything.”

Last weekend, I was in D.C. for a show, and I had to run the word by my hosts. “Have you ever heard this?” I was assured that it wasn’t used outside Philadelphia, or at least it hadn’t made it to D.C. Then we went to a shoe store, and standing there, holding an Air Force One, one of the friends who I’d just told about jawns overheard the group of kids to our right. “Dem jawns hype. Naw, dese jawns it. Jawns, jawnsing, jawns.” Every fucking shoe in the store was a jawn. They pointed and referred to parts of the shoe. The Nike swoosh was a jawn. The toe box was a jawn. We all conferred. How does a word spread that fast? Why is it used so much? When we were younger, did anybody ever say “fly” or “swass” fucking 15 times in a thirty second period?

We went back to the apartment to consult Urban Dictionary, and it had this to say:

Jawns can mean anything as long as it is used in context. A verb, noun, pronoun, adverb, preposition, or even an exclamation. Jawns emphasizes the significance of the lack of anything else to say. Jawns originates from the word 'jawn' used in Philly.

As a noun:
Bob: Holler
George: Lemme get that jawns

As a verb (and a noun)
History teacher: Hello kids
Kid: If we jawns that jawns can we jawn it?

As an adverb:
Ferdinand: It was done in an extremely jawn fashion.

As an exclamation:
Kid: OMG I JUST FOUND A DOLLAR
Kid: OHHHHH NICE JAWNS!!!!!!

This omni-functionality of jawn raises an interesting question: Could language devolve into nothing but a series of jawnses?