Jawn is Everything and Nothing

By Alex Hall | Ryan Harrison

By

Alex Hall
Ryan Harrison

All the kids in my Northwest Philly neighborhood used jawn constantly, starting when I was about 10, so around 1980. It seemed like it was just a slang fad at first like “yeet” is now, but it stuck. The fact that there was no internet, and that language and cultural life were much more regionally specialized back then is significant. I grew up on the same street as my father and my grandfather, and I remember explaining the term to my dad when I was in my teens, so it probably wasn’t widespread before the 70s.

I don’t think anyone really knows where it originated. I think it came from the black community in North Philly—probably in the early 70s and spread out from there. My neighborhood was mixed race, and it bordered North Philly, which, after white flight, was an almost completely black neighborhood by the early 80s. The first kids I heard use jawn were slightly older black kids in the Germantown/Mt. Airy neighborhood where I grew up. Hip hop culture was starting to creep into the mainstream, and a lot of us young white boys who hung around with black kids were adopting all the hip hop signifiers—music, clothes, and slang. Jawn became a code word among our peers: you used it to let black kids and other white boys know you were down. 

By the time I was in high school, even white kids from predominantly white ’hoods were using it. But it seemed like it stayed in the middle to working class milieu. None of the rich preppy kids at my exclusive private prep high school in Chestnut Hill used it, except a handful of us who were from more modest neighborhoods. I left for college in ‘89 and wasn’t in Philly much after that, but it seemed to me that it kind of faded for a decade or so and then had a revival in the early 2000s. My much younger brother was suddenly rocking a “jawn” t-shirt. The Millennials definitely seized on it, and by 2010 it was everywhere. 

Philly is still a fairly parochial town and lives in the shadow of New York (and even D.C. to some extent), so cultural signifiers take on a heightened importance—cheesesteaks, Rocky, etc. Philadelphians take crazy pride in that kind of thing. And jawn has become part of that urge toward self-definition and distinction. That’s why when you ask people about it, they say vague shit like, “Jawn is everything and nothing.” It’s almost like the coded slang of the New Orleans Mardi Gras Indians. None of them really knows where a lot of that stuff came from or what it even really means, but it does mean a lot. And a lot of its power resides in the fact that other people aren’t in on it. 

Jawn is a great word, linguistically speaking. It’s a generic catch-all. You can use it to refer to anything that you’re indicating. Usually it refers to a physical object, but it doesn’t have to. It’s definitely a noun though. Try it for a few days, and you’ll be addicted.

Kitchen Jawn Lexicon

  • CAVATELLI JAWN = Cavatelli paddle
  • COFFEE JAWN = Carafes used on weekends for brunch service
  • STRAINER JAWN = Hawthorne, julep, or fine mesh strainer used behind the bar — or a choinois
  • MISE JAWN = Mise-en-place tray
  • THAT JAWN = Referring to a blender plunger, pass me that jawn when you're done with it
  • MY JAWN = The song you play after last call, the late-night burger joint you hit after work, your bag of last-minute makeup, your preferred shift drink, your favorite busser
  • SCHEDULE JAWN = Hotschedules POS System
  • THAT FUCKING CHEESE JAWN = Slate cheese boards that crack when you look at them
  • SERVING JAWNS = Banged-up serving spoons at staff meal

 

 

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