Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

Damiano Consilvio


Jawn is a neutral, all-purpose noun used to reference any person, place, situation, or object. In casual conversation, it takes the place of the word thing. Contrary to popular belief, jawn did not entirely originate in Philadelphia, but developed locally as a variant pronunciation of joint in African American vernacular English.

The meaning of jawn derives from joint in the slang of the New York regional dialect, which then migrated south to Philadelphia, but the word has a much longer history beyond the Americas. As a reference to places or situations, linguists have traced jawn back to English and French texts from the tenth through thirteenth centuries. Jointe (in French) meant one of three things: the body part (elbow joint), the act of joining (as in joint custody of an estate), or, the least obvious, a situation or part of something. Through a process known as semantic bleaching—the loosening of a word’s meaning and its application to other contexts—joint became the prototypical all-purpose noun used in modern conventional English.

[caption id="attachment_33655" align="alignright" width="300"] A “Philly Jawns” sign identifies Philadelphia-themed products at a Five Below store on Market Street. (Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia photograph)[/caption]

Joint retained remnants of its French and Middle English meaning when it arrived in New York via French migration to the region. As users of the word traveled south to Philadelphia in the twentieth century, joint underwent a distinct change in both meaning and pronunciation that resulted in the creation of jawn. While joint generally referred to physical locations or noted a predicament, jawn referenced objects, locations, events, or situational contexts. 

African American English speakers in Philadelphia adapted joint and created the new word jawn. The phonetic evolution from joint into jawn resulted from a tendency in African American Vernacular English (AAVE) to remove the final consonant of a word, and replace labial, dental, and velar stops (the p’s, t’s, and k’s) with glottal stops (the -aw or -uh sound made in the throat when pronouncing jawn). When pronouncing the parent word “joint” the larynx produces the sounds: “jawihnt.” AAVE changes this into jawn by emphasizing the glottal ah sound, omitting the ee vowel, and dropping the end consonant t, leaving the sounds jah - n. In essence, Philadelphia created the pronunciation of the word, but its meaning already existed.

Jawn has been invoked in popular culture, on social media, and for local business purposes, suggesting the gradual normalization of the word and its progression from slang to standard English. In the early 1980s, a hip-hop group, Funky 4 + 1, used the early derivation of jawnjoint—in the song “That’s the Joint.” In the 2000s, popular Philadelphia rapper Meek Mill (Robert Rahmeek Williams, b. 1987) produced the notable lyrics “Throwback Jawn” and “Repo,” a criticism of the rapper Cassidy (Barry Adrian Reese, b. 1982), in which he uses jawn to take the place of a nominal object. The Twitter page @thejawnmedia, created to promote the music of Philadelphia rap artists, and the hip-hop Internet radio station 97.2 Tha Jawn Philly, both used jawn to refer to a song or producer of songs.

[caption id="attachment_33656" align="alignright" width="225"] A poster advertising a local “Comedy Jawn” reflects the prevalence of the word among Philadelphians. (Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia photograph)[/caption]

In commercial usage, a “juke joint” was a gathering place, much like a bar or speakeasy, operated and used by African Americans in the southeastern United States during the emancipation era. A vintage restaurant in Philadelphia, the Bourbon House & Juke Joint (later renamed the Twisted Tail) at 511 S. Second Street, adopted this historical milieu. Merchandise in stores espousing Philadelphia culture (such as City-Blue on South Street) introduced shirts and other apparel with phrases like “Philly Jawn” and the like. In popular film, the character Bianca in the movie Creed (2015) used the word while referring to the quality of a cheesesteak.

In 2017, Merriam-Webster acknowledged the rising presence of jawn and the significance of urban Philadelphia culture by publishing an online essay defining and contextualizing the word. Although slang by definition and as of early 2019 not in the Merriam-Webster or Oxford English Dictionaries, the prevalence of jawn in popular culture has promoted it from street-side talk to nearly standard English.

Damiano Consilvio is a doctoral student at the University of Rhode Island. Caitlin Walker is a graduate student at Rutgers University–Camden, focusing on linguistics and aspires to earn a Ph.D. and work in academia.  

Philadelphia (Film)

As a form of cinematic activism, Philadelphia (1993) attempted to reform the public understanding of AIDS in a time when ignorance and fear of the disease fueled prejudice and hate. The film is not merely set in the city of its title, but in a large part, the people of Philadelphia performed it. Extras who stood in the background of its street-side scenes, observers of the court proceedings, and people in the hospital receiving treatment were Philadelphians fighting the AIDS epidemic themselves.

[caption id="attachment_31551" align="alignright" width="300"]This color photograph shows film director Jonathan Demme and Greater Philadelphia Film Office director Sharon Pinkenson at a 2008 Phillies event. Demme holds a red hat marked "World Series Champions." Sharon Pinkenson (right), director of the Greater Philadelphia Film Office, invited director Jonathan Demme to consider the city as the location for his film. They are shown together here at an event celebrating the Phillies' victory in the 2008 World Series. (Photograph ©2008 by Donald D. Groff for The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia)[/caption]

In the early 1980s, Philadelphia, along with New York and Los Angeles, saw the first diagnoses of illnesses later understood to be the AIDS virus. Because of this historical relevance, Sharon Pinkenson (b. 1948) of the Greater Philadelphia Film Office suggested to Jonathan Demme (1944-2017), the film’s director, that he set his production in Philadelphia as a tribute to the people affected by the disease. Originally, Demme was in search of another major city for his film. However, after spending time in Philadelphia and realizing it to be a symbol of independence, exuding at times a culture of tolerance and brotherhood, Demme found it an ideal location to host a story about discrimination and prejudice.

In the film, Tom Hanks (b. 1956) plays the role of Andy Beckett, who contracts AIDS while simultaneously ascending the ranks of a prestigious Philadelphia law firm. Andy is a passionate, knowledgeable, and dedicated lawyer, who in the beginning of the film wins an argument before a judge over the environmental toxicity of building materials used by a company that his firm represents. Despite his initial success, Andy is dismissed from the firm after his colleagues discover that he is infected with AIDS. The plot develops around Andy’s wrongful termination and his exposure of the firm’s true motives for firing him. Andy eventually gains the sympathy of an African American lawyer, Joe Miller, played by Denzel Washington (b. 1954), who decides to represent Andy after identifying with the prejudice he faces as a victim of AIDS. 

[caption id="attachment_31552" align="alignright" width="181"]This color photograph shows actor Tom Hanks. He is wearing a blue collared shirt and a black jacket with a label that reads "US." In Philadelphia, Tom Hanks portrays Andy Beckett, a lawyer who contracts AIDS and sues his law firm for wrongful termination. Hanks is shown here in a 2005 photograph. (Photograph by Michael E. Dukes, Wikimedia Commons)[/caption]

A number of legal and social initiatives at the time of the filming and release of Philadelphia similarly advocated for those affected by the illness. The federal Americans with Disabilities Act, passed in 1990, prohibited termination of an employee solely because of an illness, including AIDS, or other circumstance brought upon them involuntarily. The AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania, a nonprofit law firm founded in 1988, specialized in assisting AIDS victims by taking on cases such as workplace discrimination, harassment, and estate settlements. These initiatives sought to challenge employers who asserted probable cause when dismissing a queer or infected individual from a job. As in Andy’s case in the film, victims argued that the illness did not inhibit them from performing their work duties and therefore should not be a basis for firing or otherwise quarantining them from society.

While vested in social issues confronting Philadelphia and beyond, the film also documents a panorama of locations across the city in the early 1990s. Its opening scene and many interludes feature views of the skyline, including buildings such as One Liberty Place and City Hall. In one instance, the film shows the charred remains of One Meridian Plaza, the high-rise on Fifteenth Street across from City Hall that was condemned after a 1991 fire that took the lives of three firefighters. On Market Street, the Mellon Bank Building played the role of headquarters of Beckett’s prestigious law firm, and a building at Nineteenth and Chestnut Streets served as the law office of Joe Miller, the lawyer who represents Andy in his wrongful dismissal suit. The climax of the film takes place in and around City Hall, which served as the site of the court case that is the pivotal moment in Andy’s story.

[caption id="attachment_31549" align="alignright" width="204"]This color photograph shows City Hall circa 2005. Three of Philadelphia's tallest skyscrapers can be seen in the background, illuminated by a sunset. Several scenes in Philadelphia , including the climactic court case, take place in and around City Hall. (PhillyHistory.org)[/caption]

Philadelphia earned two Academy Awards, one for Hanks as best actor and the other for best original song, “The Streets of Philadelphia,” by Bruce Springsteen. While garnering critical praise and popularity, the film received mixed responses from the gay community. Some questioned Demme’s knowledge of gay sexuality in his representation of the relationship between Andy and Miquel, played by Antonio Banderas (b. 1960). Others, however, praised the production for its advocacy of an issue towards which the rest of society was dismally silent. Philadelphia prevailed at a time when AIDS was both widespread and grossly misunderstood, and by penetrating the social ignorance towards the disease the film taught people to empathize with affected individuals instead of shun them for their malady.

Damiano Consilvio is a Ph.D. student at the University of Rhode Island and studies the ways in which digital technologies can enhance the practice of textual editing. His book project, Ethan Frome: A Digital Scholarly Edition, is forthcoming.

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