The Philadelphia replacement noun that started as “joint” in New York City.
The word “jawn” is a Philadelphia slang noun that can serve as a substitute for anything. Jawn is all things. Jawn is singular and/or plural (but “jawns” is also a viable plural form of “jawn”). Much like how bagpipes have become a symbol of Scotland even though they aren’t from Scotland, jawn is associated with Philadelphia but it didn’t start there. Jawn began as the word “joint” in New York City.
The official meaning of “joint” is that of a connection or a place where things come together. From this the Black American slang meaning for “a place to hang out” (such as “juke joint”) came about in the late 19th century. This use of joint eventually developed a racist connotation where “joint” also became slang for illegal drugs. Fast forward to 1980s New York City and the word joint developed a new positive meaning through the early rap scene. Funky 4+1’s That’s The Joint for example uses joint as a thing you like and enjoy. This use of joint is also heard later in the Beastie Boys’ Shake Your Rump. It’s this meaning of joint that took on a new life in Philadelphia.
Semantic Bleaching & The Southern Influence
One of the earliest instances of this joint change is a 1981 linguistic study field recording of an unnamed Black man in West Philadelphia. He uses joint to refer to all manner of things, from objects to women and more – joint had become a catch-all word that meant anything you wanted. This change is an example of “semantic bleaching” where there’s a reduction in a word’s intensity (like how “awesome” went from “inspiring awe” to also meaning “cool” or “terrific”). The Philadelphia semantic bleaching of joint likely took place sometime in the late 1970s.
Joint also underwent a change in pronunciation. The Philadelphia accent, while similar to New York City, is distinctly different owing to a greater influence of American southern accents (an accent that has linguistically made Philadelphia the “northern-most Southern city” according to UPenn linguist William Labov). Through this accent the “oi” sound in “joint” became more of an “aw” sound. Also the ending T became muted owing to African American English Vernacular. As such “joint” was pronounced more as “jawnt” and then just “jawn”.
Today jawn is far more versatile and celebrated than its joint ancestor. While perhaps not heard on a daily basis it’s still a part of Philadelphia’s cultural identity. One can find jawn in graffiti, boutique clothing companies, carpetbagger lawyers trying to ingratiate themselves to the region, and more. Jawn is as Philly as cheesesteaks, the Mummers, the Wanamaker Christmas light show, wooder ice, Wawa, Rocky, and soft pretzels.