When I moved from North Carolina to Philadelphia a few years ago to teach at Gwynedd-Mercy College, I noticed a lot of things that were unique to the city. The way natives say “wooder ice,” the devotion to pretzels and cheesesteaks, and … “jawn.”
The most interesting and unique Philly word has to be jawn.
“Man, that was the jawn!”
“You see that jawn?”
“You going to that jawn tonight?”
“That jawn got on my nerves.”
“That jawn was all that!”
“Lemme get a piece of that jawn.”
“Jawn” was completely unfamiliar to me. That’s because it’s a Philly thing and pretty much just a Philly thing.
It’s a relatively new word too, in that it arose within living memory. People can remember it coming into their vocabulary. They can remember a life before jawn. Many date it to the late 1980s or early 1990s, roughly the Wilson Goode administration, although he likely didn’t have anything to do with it.
So, what does it mean?
According to Philly native Mary Seaborough, who works at Cook-Wissahickon elementary, where my kids attend school, “It really can mean anything you want it to mean.”
Seaborough grew up in South Philly. She uses “jawn,” and she helped me understand the word’s versatility. It is used mainly to refer to places and things, but it can even be a person, specifically a pretty woman. “A guy might say, ‘Man, did you see that jawn over there?'” Seaborough said.
Vindetta Garvin also works at Cook-Wissahickon. Garvin has lived in Philadelphia her entire life and is also a fan of the word. “It substitutes for a lot of words,” Garvin said. “On my way home tonight, I’ll hear something on the radio and yell ‘That’s my jawn!'”
It fills in for another word, handy in a brain-freeze moment, or comes out as an expression of enthusiasm.
Now, where did this jawn come from?
It most likely started in the African-American community, where it remains most widely used, but Seaborough is quick to point out that the inner city neighborhoods are not 100 percent black.
“I’d say inner city, not just African-American,” she said of the usage.
Native Philadelphian Earnest Key is a probation officer for the city. He said he has rarely heard a white person use the word, but there are exceptions. “White guys from the, quote-unquote, hood, use it, and they use it correctly,” Key said.
“Jawn” isn’t just a word; it is a marker of identity. If you are out of town and you hear the word “jawn,” you know that the speaker is probably from Philadelphia.
“When I speak to people from New York or D.C., they don’t know it,” Key said.
As a Philly membership card, “jawn” carries hometown pride. It’s all Philly, something the city’s nemesis, New York, can’t claim, Key said.
“We can take pride in the word because we know it’s ours. They can’t say we stole it from them like they say we stole everything else, like their fashion, their music. ‘Jawn’ is ours.”
“I think it is a word to be proud of,” Garvin said. “It originated with African-Americans. It originated in Philadelphia.”
That’s the jawn.
Janis Chakars is a NewsWorks contributor.