Like most big cities, Philadelphia has its own set of colloquialisms that only Philadelphians understand. Some of these words have become well-known throughout the nation and are no longer Philadelphia-specific. By now, everyone knows what a "hoagie" is, except that Philadephians still pronounce it with that guttural "oh," a sort of "secret handshake" that allows other Philadelphians to identify their homies. The same goes for "wooder*," "Oh-pal**," "Ac-a-me***" and "fil-im****, all common words that true Philadelphians just can't seem to pronounce correctly.
There's another word that is prevalent in the current Philadelphia vernacular. It's an all-purpose word that means many things and is the perfect word for many occasions. Perhaps you've heard it shouted across the Italian Market on 9th Street. Maybe someone said it while they were walking into the Linc. Or maybe you heard it the first place I heard it. In a courtroom in City Hall.
In 1983, I was in my third year of a four-year program at the Hussian School of Art. a small but prestigious art school located on three floors of an office building in Center City¤ Philadelphia. (Yellow Cab occupied several of the lower floors.) One morning, my illustration teacher, a talented and inspirational young lady who allowed the class to call her "Ginny," took our ragtag band of budding artists on a field trip. We assembled and walked as a group to nearby City Hall, a majestic building situated dead center in the intersection of Broad Street and Market Street. Upon completion of its 30-year construction, Philadelphia City Hall was the tallest inhabitable building in the world. The limestone, granite and marble structure is adorned with 250 statues created by artist Alexander Milne Calder, including the massive, 37-foot tall figure of city founder William Penn, which is still the largest statue to top any building in the world. City Hall is the headquarters of Philadelphia's municipal court system and that was the destination of my illustration class that morning. Arrangements had been made by Ginny to have our class observe and draw the occupants of a courtroom during a trial. As a group, we were excited — collectively imagining our work prominently displayed on the 11 o'clock news while Action News anchor Jim Gardner reads a story of some hardened criminal's pending sentencing.
We were ushered into the ornate courtroom by Ginny's legal connection and we shuffled to find seats in the visitors' gallery. A trial was already underway, so we tried our best to remain as quiet and we could. The prosecuting attorney — a novice Clarence Darrow — briefly stopped his questioning as he turned his head to watch us take our seats. When we were all seated, he resumed speaking, only now, it seemed, he was injecting his queries with a more theatrical bravado... after all, he now had an audience. He paced in front of the young man in the witness box as the jury watched intently. The witness, a young African-American gentleman dressed in a popular 80s-style jogging suit, seemed totally disinterested in the proceedings at hand. We had missed the beginning of the case, so we had to figure out what was going on based on current activity. At this point, none of us were drawing. The prosecutor gestured in exaggerated motions and asked his witness, "So, then what you do?"
The witness shifted in his seat and mumbled, "I went and got my hammer."
The prosecutor looked puzzled. "Your hammer?," he repeated, "You got a hammer? A tool to drive nails?"
The witness looked at the prosecutor like the guy had three heads. He frowned, shook his head and answered, "Nah, man. My hammer!" He raised his hand, popped up his thumb until it was perpendicular to his extended forefinger, creating a right angle. He waved his digital approximation of a firearm in the prosecutor's direction and then spoke the word.
"Y'know, man. My jawn!"
The room fell silent. Then a low murmur rippled through the visitors' gallery. "What was that?" "What did he say?" "What does that mean?" The witness shrugged, as though he uttered something as familiar as "Happy Birthday to You." Realizing that his statement was not understood, he leaned forward, his lips almost touching the microphone and said, "My gun.," and leaned back in his chair, lifting the front legs off the floor. The prosecutor was obviously startled, so he changed the direction of his questioning and just let "jawn" go on... unacknowledged.
And I never heard the word again, until some months later.
I was working in my cousin's health food restaurant with a nice guy named Tony... although sometimes he preferred to be called "Gary." One evening, after we closed, Tony was in the kitchen of the restaurant, washing some pots in a sink overflowing with suds. I was carrying the unused portions of casseroles into the kitchen to wrap and pile up in the refrigerator. Tony was working steel wool in perfect time to some awesome jams blaring from the radio Tony kept on the window sill. I asked Tony about the song, one I had never heard before. Tony extracted his hand from the sink and pointed a soapy finger at his boombox.
"That's the jawn!," he said with a smile. In the following weeks and months, Tony said "jawn" a lot. Everything was a "jawn." A casserole in the oven was a "jawn." A serving utensil was a "jawn," My car was a "jawn." My bike was a "jawn." A movie Tony saw the past weekend was a "jawn," too. "Jawn," it seemed, was whatever you needed it to be. An all-purpose word that served all purposes.
And it was purely Philadelphia.
More recently, "jawn" has hit mainstream Philadelphia vocabulary. It's used on local radio, on local television, in local advertising. Some Philadelphia businesses have embraced and even hijacked "jawn" to give themselves an air of "street cred," thinking it makes them automatically cool. I've seen "jawn" on local billboards for organizations like the Philadelphia Visitors Bureau. And, you know what, I'll give them a pass. They do great things in the name of promoting our fair city.
But this one, I believe, officially marks the decline — and eventual death — of "jawn."
Oh "jawn," we hardly knew ye.
¤ Another of Philadelphia's charming colloquial terms, this one for the downtown area of the city.