Jitney.

The English Language & Usage Stack Exchange had a very interesting thread on the topic Why did Jitney become slang for nickel?. The most thorough response was from David L. Gold:

It may be possible to antedate the word (which has been spelled jetney, gitney, and jitney) to the 1870s:

“Does jitney mean a nickel, or a ride, or a method of transportation, or a state of mind? […] in reading the old files of the Overland Magazine some time ago, dated in the seventies, ]I found that the term jitney is used by one of the characters of a story of San Francisco life, the context of the story shows that this particular ‘jitney’ was a quarter. A further proof that a jitney is not necessarily a nickel is that in early times no coin of less value than a quarter circulated on the coast.

So. Mr. Jitneur, when some opponent upbraids you for not being a true jitney because you may charge more than five cents, read him this article and crush him to earth. A jitney is a small coin, such as the great American public are now paying for trackless transportation.

“Postscript—Alas, for trying to prove anything! We have just received word that a Canadian board of councilmen have decided that a ‘jitney’ is five cents” (unsigned, “What does Jitney Mean?,” The Jitney Bus, vol. 1, no. 4, July 1915, p. 114; the bracketed addition is mine [I have omitted most of the piece; see link for more — LH]).

I say “may be possible to antedate,” because the passage of time (cf. “some time ago”) may play tricks on one’s memory. Issues of The Overland Monthly have to be examined line by line (so far I have been unable to find the word there).

The anonymous writer’s speculation in the rest of the passage is likewise subject to examination. Nothing is to be taken on faith, such as his inference that “the word was in common use because we had learned it there” and his reasoning that the word had been used in California “since the days of ’49 […] because several pioneers have told us it was used.”

Also, since five-cent coins have been minted in the United States since the 1790s, the writer’s ability to know what the situation was “in the days before nickels were invented” is doubtful.

The following articles have more information about the word:

Gold, David L. 2009. “American English jitney ‘five-cent coin; sum of five cents’ Has No Apparent Jewish or Russian Connection and May Come from (Black?) Louisiana French jetnée (On the Increasing Difficulty of Harvesting All the Grain).” In his Studies in Etymology and Etiology (With Emphasis on Germanic, Jewish, Romance, and Slavic Languages). Selected and edited, with a foreword, by Félix Rodríguez González and Antonio Lillo Buades. Alicante. Publicaciones de la Universidad de Alicante. Pp.163-192, partly available here.

Gold, David L. 2018-2020. “Pursuing the origin of the American English informalism gitney ~ jitney: On the alleged Louisiana French word *jetnée and the fallacy of omne ignotum pro magnifico in etymological research.” Leuvense Bijdragen: Leuven Contributions in Linguistics and Philology. Vol. 102. Pp. 383 – 417.

[Abstract omitted.]

Gold 2009 mentions another etymology suggested for gitney ~ jitney (namely, that it comes from the alleged French noun *jetnée) but does not go into detail. The present article delves deeper into that suggestion; it finds no reliable evidence for that word; and it suggests that if the word has ever existed, it is likely a reflex of gitney ~ jitney. The present article also examines Stephen Goranson’s recently suggested etymology of gitney ~ jitney, namely, < earlier American English jetney ‘?’ < French *jetnée, and finds no evidence for it.

[Table of contents omitted.]

A third article on gitney ~ jitney that will propose a different French origin for the word is now in press in France and will appear in February or March 2021.

Gold has been commenting here of late; perhaps he will show up and provide an update.

Comments

  1. David Marjanović says:

    is now in press in France

    Articles are still in press in places? Is that one at least going to have a DOI?

  2. In the early American West there was a definite shortage of coins. Bits were still in circulation. A bit is a one-eighth slice of a Spanish silver dollar, thus worth 12½¢, hence “pieces of eight”. When dimes and nickels began to turn up, then 15¢ was called a “long bit” and 10¢ a “short bit”, because things (like a drink in a bar) were still priced in bits.

    Private mints started coining gold somewhat illegally in California in 1849. (You were supposed to take your gold to Philadelphia to be converted into currency, which was not practical.) The US San Francisco Mint and Assay Office was opened in 1854, but it only did gold coins at first, so the smallest coin was a gold dollar. However most of the output was Double Eagles ($20). In 1855 San Francisco began to strike silver coins, but only quarter and half dollars. The amount of silver available was limited until the Comstock Lode was opened (1859).

    So there was a period when the smallest coin in use on the West Coast was a quarter. It seems to be very difficult to find out how many coins of which type were produced in which year. But there should have been plenty of nickels by the 1870s.

  3. Well, sure: acceptance is not always followed by instant publication.

    Also, since five-cent coins have been minted in the United States since the 1790s

    Yes, but they weren’t nickels; they were tiny silver half-dimes, and Mark Twain speaks of them by that name. The nickel was the first base-metal coin and was first issued in 1866; the modern Jefferson/Monticello design was first used in 1938.

    in early times no coin of less value than a quarter circulated on the coast

    Rather, it was the smallest price of an article of commerce. Long bits and short bits.

  4. January First-of-May says:

    Yes, but they weren’t nickels; they were tiny silver half-dimes

    They also had fairly low mintages, especially early on; until the year 1828 inclusive only about a quarter million had been minted, and not until the 1840s did the total cumulative mintage catch up to the US population.

    Private mints started coining gold somewhat illegally in California in 1849.

    Indeed, but still nothing below a quarter; even a quarter dollar coin in gold was inconveniently small (~10 mm), so (to the best of my knowledge) no lower denominations were ever produced.

    The nickel was the first base-metal coin and was first issued in 1866

    Not quite. Of course US coins (cents and half cents) were issued in copper ever since 1793; copper (and bronze) aside, cupronickel (12% nickel) cents were issued from 1857 until 1864, and the 25% nickel alloy was first used in three-cent coins in 1865.

    It seems to be very difficult to find out how many coins of which type were produced in which year.

    Numismatic websites should have the full data; I used CCF US Coin Facts for the mintage description above, but there are many other sources.

  5. Could jitney be related to the Jitney class engines?

  6. Damn, the engines are called Jintey of course, not Jitney.

  7. Jinty.

    I remember that earlier I was able to edit my comments, but now I can’t. I really wonder whether the problem is just on my side.

  8. On July 20, 2016 I wrote on American Dialect Society list “The antedatings of jitney (1899) and jetney (1898), as well as the 1915 memory of jetnée may show the origin in Black Lousiana French, from jeton….”
    David L. Gold wrote at length that jetnée may be a misremembered word. Maybe so. I still think that jitney and jitney (coin) may have “origin in Black Lousiana French, from jeton.”

    (From 2020) Concerning the publication, David L. Gold, “Pursuing the origin of the American English informalism _gitney ~ jitney_: On the alleged Louisiana French word _*jetnée_ and the fallacy of omne ignotum pro magnifico in etymological research,” Leuvense Bijdragen 102 (2018-2020) 383-417.

    1) The first sentence of the Abstract (p. 383, with my ellipses) included: “The author’s first treatment of the informal American English noun _gitney ~ jitney_…(Gold 2009b)…”
    I’m not sure how important it may be, but A. Liberman’s Bibliography of English Etymology lists at jitney, Gold 1983b, 1983h, and 1985b. And Gold 2009b, Chapter 9, “American English _jitney_….” in his Studies in Etymology and Etiology… (2009) 163-192 at footnote 1 reads: “This is an expanded version of an article which appeared in _Leuvense Bijdragen_ 87, 1988, pp. 155-170.” Also, Gold’s latest article cites me once at ads-l 20 July 2016, (a post which also requoted, with typos corrected, a 3 July post); those combined refer to Liberman’s Bibliography at jitney, among other publications, and also Gold’s 2009 publication.

    2) David Gold may have misunderstood my proposal. I wrote that jitney/jetney may have derived from French jeton: “The antedatings of jitney (1899) and jetney (1898), as well as the 1915 memory of jetnée may show the origin in Black Louisiana French, from jeton.”
    Quoting out of context sentence fragments of what I wrote (p. 408) may misrepresent what I think and thought and wrote.
    Gold wrote “In its present state, Stephen Goranson’s suggested etymology of gitney ~ jitney rests on no verified evidence.” Whether that’s accurate I leave to readers.
    Gold announced (409, 410, and bibliography) a forthcoming article that presumably will expand on an—uncited—1898 text including “In the colored parlance I’m the Jetney[…]”

    [That’s an odd place for an ellipsis.] David Gold (p. 406) cites a “1898” text “In the colored parlance I’m the Jetney […]”
    He does not provide a citation of the source.

    Perhaps he means the 1897 song lyric in “The Jetney Queen,” words by Carol Fleming (c.1865-1930?)? (“F.F.V.” in the chorus may mean First Families of Virginia.)
    In any case, sheet music here:
    http://digital.library.ucla.edu/apam/librarian?VIEWPDF=SY106949PDF

  9. January First-of-May says:

    and the 25% nickel alloy was first used in three-cent coins in 1865

    As a side-note, unlike some other countries (such as Canada), the US had never produced a coin in pure or nearly-pure nickel; the “nickels” have always been mostly copper (though for a brief period in the 1940s they were made out of a 35% silver alloy that contained no nickel and would normally have qualified as “billon”).

  10. Maybe (?) this one, previously announced on his webpage (davidlgold.com):
    “Gold, David L. 2020. American English jitney ‘[any] American coin worth no more than twenty-five cents’ < Louisiana French *jetonnet *'idem'? (a study in English and French etymology and numismatics)." In press in Mélanges Roy Rosenstein, Lectures de comparatiste : quatre millénaires de littérature mondiale.”

    Though, it may be, as with “kibosh” (also with future publications mentioned) that his etymological proposal for “jitney”–and jetney, (an autonym for black, African-American, Negro?) etc.– has changed.

  11. John Emerson says:

    According to O. Henry, F.F.V. means “gel for your vest” — the implication being that the First Families of Virginia were declining aristocrats who, at any given moment, always happened to be a little short of cash.

  12. John Emerson says:

    FEEL for your vest.

  13. Charles Perry says:

    As late as the 1890s, nickels were in such short supply in Los Angeles that if you wanted a tamale from vendor in the Plaza, you had to buy two.

  14. January First-of-May: Thanks. That’s a very useful site. I wonder why it didn’t turn up in any of my searches.

    San Francisco made 396,400 quarters in 1855. In the same year Philadelphia made nearly 3 million. Production of quarters decreased thereafter. In 1864 only 20,000 were minted. Production of quarters stayed fairly low until about 1873, when there was a sizeable increase. In 1877 nearly 9 million were produced.

    San Francisco minted 70,000 dimes in 1856 and didn’t reach 100,000 until 1860. Production of dimes remained fairly flat until 1875, when it zoomed up to 9 million.

    San Francisco started minting half dimes with a run of 100,000 in 1863. Production increased slowly to 324,000 in 1873, the last year for half dimes.

    Nickels were not minted in San Francisco until 1912.

    So this supports Charles Perry’s story. There were not many 5¢ coins produced on the west coast. I suppose after railroads were built, they could move coins by train from the East, but I don’t know how much they bothered for low-value coins.

  15. John Cowan says:

    issued in copper

    I suppose it’s a matter of definitions whether copper is a base metal or not. I didn’t know about the three-cent coins, though.

    Nowadays it seems to be $5 bills that are in short supply.

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