Dan Nosowitz’s “The Enduring Mystery Of ‘Jawn’, Philadelphia’s All-Purpose Noun” is a fascinating look at a feature of Philadelphia English, though Nosowitz goes way overboard claiming uniqueness for it:
The word “jawn” is unlike any other English word. In fact, according to the experts that I spoke to, it’s unlike any other word in any other language. It is an all-purpose noun, a stand-in for inanimate objects, abstract concepts, events, places, individual people, and groups of people. It is a completely acceptable statement in Philadelphia to ask someone to “remember to bring that jawn to the jawn.”
But after riffing for a while on how amazing it is, he gets down to business:
“The consensus is that it came from ‘joint,’ and from New York,” says Jones. Ben Zimmer, a linguist and language columnist who’s written and talked about “jawn” before, agrees, writing in an email that “‘jawn’ evidently developed as a Philly variant of ‘joint’ in the ’80s,” following the release of the popular 1981 single “That’s The Joint” by Funky Four Plus One, an early hip-hop group from the Bronx.
The word “joint” has a much older set of meanings. Originally from the Latin iunctus, it was Old French that turned it into “joint,” meaning a connection or association, multiple things coming together, a juncture. The definition broadened in the American southeast around the time of emancipation, with the prominence of “juke joints,” bars and clubs that served as safe spaces for black Americans to come together and hang out. The concept of a joint as a place expanded a bit, and is still in use today; think of a pizza joint.
There are a few other meanings of joint, the drug slang being the most common. Since “joint” was used already as a place, and specifically, in the minds of some Americans, as a disreputable place, it came to be used for other disreputable places: betting parlors at first, then opium dens. The opium joint led to the word becoming kind of a general purpose slang in the drug world for paraphernalia, and by the 1950s the word was firmly and commonly understood to refer to a cigarette-like roll of marijuana.
Funky Four Plus One’s use, though, is one of the earliest recorded uses of the word as a kind of general, positive term. Calling something “the joint” means it’s something you like, something that you connect with, and a slight tweak of that to “my joint” means that it’s something that you cheerfully embrace as yours.
There’s much more, including discussions of “semantic bleaching,” Labov’s Philadelphia Neighborhood Corpus, African-American Vernacular English, and the diverging of white and black dialects in Philly, not to mention a YouTube clip of “That’s The Joint” (a record I remember fondly from my first years in New York). Thanks, Bonnie!