The power of jawn: has there ever been a more versatile word?
If you could only choose one word to use for the rest of your life, which would you pick? Of course, it’s difficult to imagine having your rich vocabulary replaced with a single word. Most adult native English speakers have a vocabulary of 20,000 – 35,000 words, so we are used to having an enormous pool of words to dip into.
But let’s imagine a fairy-tale scenario. You plucked a golden egg from under a golden goose, and now an evil gnome has cursed you to utter only one word for evermore. In a final, perverse twist, the evil gnome forces you to choose your last word.
If it were me in this situation, rather than you, I would choose jawn as my forever word. I’ve never said this word aloud, and yet I feel a great affection for it, and I feel content to wave my words goodbye with this multipurpose unit of language at my disposal.
Jawn is a Philadelphian word. It’s a noun that can mean just about anything. It’s often used to refer to places, objects, events and even theories. Jawn can be singular or plural. Jawn can stand in for a thing you can’t remember the name of. Jawn is a linguistic Swiss Army knife. You can replace hundreds of words with jawn. Jawn is simultaneously everything, and nothing.
Here are some examples of jawn in the wild:
“We checked out this new jawn last night. Good food but the drinks were overpriced.”
“This jawn needs more jawn; it’s too bland.”
“My side-jawn heard about my main jawn and now both are gone.”
Atlas Obscura published an in-depth article about the origins of this wondrous word, tracing it back to New York and the word joint. The word evolved from meaning a point of connection to connoting a place where people hang out. An association with drug dens and gambling joints lead to the use of joint to mean drug paraphernalia and eventually marijuana cigarettes. As joint travelled south-west from New York to Philadelphia it underwent a process of semantic bleaching and morphed into jawn.
Linguistically speaking, semantic bleaching is when words lose their precise meaning and take on new meanings. In the case of jawn, it did more than expand its powers, it became a kind of linguistic chameleon, able to change its appearance according to its surroundings. This versatility makes it the perfect word to replace 30,000.
There are, of course, problems with using stand-ins for the words you mean. My wife complains about a colleague who says things like “Did you make a list of the things we need to do the thing with the things?” While my wife might guess many of these things, conversations quickly become an exhausting guessing game.
According to the people who have counted, the word with the most meanings is set. Set has 464 definitions in the Oxford English Dictionary. This might seem like a great choice, given its versatility, but it’s too dull. What could I ever possibly communicate with set? Other words with many meanings include run, play, take, break, turn and go. These are all very functional, but their definitions are too firm, too established and too dull to be any good as a universal word.
Curse words have a certain appeal. They have an inherent versatility and would also help me express my frustration at being tormented by an evil gnome. Swear words can be used as standalone declarations of anger, surprise or disappointment. The main barrier to choosing a swear word is my reluctance to utter obscenities in front of my children. Or any children, for that matter. This would effectively render me mute.
And so, I’m drawn back to jawn. It’s got everything I need in a word. It’s new. It’s versatile. It’s convenient. It has the linguistic potential of something like set, but it’s far more interesting.
Are you convinced by the power of jawn? Or do you have your own favourite multipurpose word?