The Forgotten Meaning of “Jerk.”

Ben Lindbergh at the Ringer asks “When did jerk stop meaning ‘stupid’?” He starts with the Steve Martin movie The Jerk, saying of its protagonist:

Navin is oblivious, not obnoxious. He’s ignorant, not intolerant. He’s naive, not intentionally cruel. He’s a bumpkin, a rube, and a moron, maybe, but a jerk? For the most part, no, I wouldn’t say so.

There he is, of course, using the current sense of jerk:

“There’s definitely been a semantic shift in ‘jerk’ over the years,” says linguist, lexicographer, and Wall Street Journal language columnist Ben Zimmer. The Oxford English Dictionary, which dates “jerk,” an American colloquialism, back to 1935, reports: “Originally: an inept or pathetic person; a fool. Now: an objectionable or obnoxious person.” Green’s Dictionary of Slang, which traces “jerk” back to 1934, defines its original meaning as “a fool, an idiot, a failure.”

He goes into the change in some detail, and it makes fascinating reading, but here’s the part that grabbed my attention and made me post it:

Here’s the sort of spooky thing. It’s not just that there are multiple generations who’ve never known a “jerk” was once a simpleton or sap. It’s that some of the folks who used to use it that way don’t remember that they did. When I asked my mom to define the word this week, she used the modern meaning, with no apparent recollection of her former firm conviction that a jerk was a dope, dodo, or dimwit. Did someone Neuralyze my mom, or have I become a jerk truther?

My mom isn’t the only boomer who may have revised their history of this specific subject. You can trace the ascendance of the asshole strain of jerk through the writing of Pulitzer Prize–winning columnist and humorist Dave Barry, who’s between my mom and Martin in age. In Stay Fit and Healthy Until You’re Dead (1985), Barry wrote, “How many bones do you think your skeletal system has? Would you say 50? 150? 250? 300? More than 300? If you guessed 50, you’re a real jerk.” In Dave Barry Turns 40 (1990), he wrote, “So your financial situation is a mess. Okay, fine. The important thing is—don’t be discouraged. There’s no reason to get down on yourself, just because you’ve been an unbelievable jerk.” But by 1996—the year of “Show me the money”—he was using the modern meaning in a column headlined, “What It Takes to Be a Jerk.”

When I brought this to Barry’s attention and asked him how the great redefinition of jerk may have happened, he wrote, “I always thought jerk meant asshole. At least I thought I always thought that, although the quotes you cite seem to suggest otherwise. So to answer your question: I have no idea. You may be right!” […]

A little light searching suggests I’m not the only amateur etymologist to lose their lexical bearings over the near-forgotten former meaning of “jerk.” “When did jerk stop meaning stupid?” a Redditor asked in 2021 (ironically, on the NoStupidQuestions subreddit). Others have seemed similarly unnerved by how the word went from signifying one thing to signifying something else so suddenly, within living memory, as everyone who used to use it the old way overwrote the old definition. There’s a sense of suddenly standing on shaky ground: Am I fluent in this language, or have I Englished wrong all along? How can we communicate if “jerk” meant nitwit in 1982 but not in 1996?

Reader, I too am such a boomer. When I started reading the column I thought jerk had always meant ‘asshole’ to me (even if it wasn’t quite as harsh), but as I went along I realized that no, I used to use it in the “dummy” sense but had somehow forgotten that fact. On the one hand, I’m glad it’s not just me, but on the other… it’s weird and unsettling!


  1. jack morava says

    As someone legally named Jack I learned early on that `jack off’ and `jerk off’ were verbally adjacent, but I think `jack’, as in `man jack’, has an old nautical history. A random internet hit tells me Dickens used it but I doubt it was his invention…

  2. I’m 60, and not only do I not remember “jerk” ever meaning “stupid,” I specifically remember seeing The Jerk when it came out and thinking that the title was inappropriate because he wasn’t a jerk at all. Just a data point.

  3. J.W. Brewer says

    Aw dude, you’re such a Boomer. Here’s something from a Jan. ’76 account by Nat Hentoff (“The Pilgrims Have Landed on Kerouac’s Grave”) of Dylan’s just-completed Rolling Thunder tour, which was a big deal for Boomers, I’m given to understand.

    “It is near the end. In Toronto Joan Baez is backstage. On stage Dylan is beginning his acoustic set. A member of Gordon Lightfoot’s band begins to move some equipment. Baez glares at him and he stops.

    “‘The jerk didn’t know any better,’ she says later, ‘but I didn’t want to miss a note.'”

    Which sense is that? Could maybe sorta go either way?

  4. Which sense is that? Could maybe sorta go either way?

    As would fool (which, I’m told, is much stronger in AAVE than in White AmE, closer indeed to ‘asshole’).

  5. (1) a dummy may inspire (a) pity, (b) contempt, or (c) annoyance.

    (2) a person may annoy through (i) stupidity (ii) obliviousness (iii) selfishness (iv) intention/spite

    So has “jerk” drifted from (1) to (1c~2.i) to (2.ii) to (2.iii) ?

  6. Christopher Culver says

    My realization that the usage of jerk changed, came from watching Annie Hall (1977) where Diane Keaton self-disparagingly refers to herself as a jerk when a modern audience might expect a word like idiot, doofus, or moron instead.

  7. Yes, that’s a good example.

  8. I am pretty sure that the only meaning that I ever personally used was the new one, which I probably picked up from my preschool or kindergarten classmates around 1980–1983 (since jerk wasn’t a word either of my parents used a lot). In fact, I actually have a fairly clear memory of encountering the older meaning and initially being mystified by it, when I saw Ghostbusters in 1984. Over the following years, I heard people use jerk in the old sense enough to learn what it meant, but I never used it that way myself.

  9. cuchuflete says

    As a tot c 1948-1952, I called my big brother a jerk. It had more ooomph than idiot.
    Fast forward to 1979-80. My boss referred to one of our firm’s clients as “a real jerk”. Context made it clear he meant ‘churlish jackass’.

  10. As a Brit, I don’t think I heard jerk until much later than these cites. I’ve never seen The Jerk [**]; I’ve seen Annie Hall but much later than 1977 — I don’t remember the word in that.

    This thread is the first time I’ve seen the merely dumb sense. I’m not too sure when I first came across the word, but it’s always seemed an Americanism/I don’t think I’d use it.

    [**] I find Steve Martin intensely annoying (I mean the personas he plays): always a jerk in the objectionable sense.

  11. I don’t remember jerk ever meaning anything but ‘asshole’ either; I’d vaguely heard of the Steve Martin movie but didn’t know anything about it.

    I’m delighted to see pop-culture sites turning to real experts like Zimmer, Nunberg, and Green. And it’s lucky for the article that the OED revised jerk in 2019: before then, they only had the definition (entered in 1976) “Someone of little or no account; a fool, a stupid person. Cf. jerkwater b.” The revision, as well as adding the new sense, replaces the connection to “jerkwater” with “Cf. jerk-off adj. B.2.”, which does seem like a very plausible influence.

    OED has it labeled “North American English” and “colloquial and slang”; at first I thought this was a format change, with the labels moved from the definitions to below the quotations where they were easier to overlook, but actually, the buttons at the bottom are *additional* search links; there is a label “North American colloquial” preceding all adjective senses, which is how it was in the old format. Sorry for the false alarm.

  12. RHHDAS vol. II (1997) has primarily the older sense, with a hint at the transition: “jerk(2) n. [cf. jerk-off, n., 2 and jerky, adj.; infl. by jerk town] 1.a. a contemptible fool; dolt; (broadly) an offensive or worthless person.” It also has a citation before 1935, which must have been rejected by the OED, maybe because it’s impossible to tell what it means:

    1919 Ashton F,63 40: The night of the St. Mihiel drive “Jerk” Manley rushed in with the words “Say, did you hear about the ork eenikin’ on the jazbo?”

    Maybe a nickname “Jerk” meant a worker on a railroad branch line, or various other things; I don’t see any way to tell.

  13. J.W. Brewer says

    The compound “soda jerk” seems to predate 1919, FWIW.

  14. I also now remember a trivia card (retrieved from a cereal box, I think; others in the series featured Tina Turner and Michael Jackson) with a picture of Paul Reubens in costume and mid-leap, asking, “Who is this jerky jumping-jack?” I’m still not sure what the intended meaning was; I think they were probably just overdoing the alliteration. This must have been during the run of Pee Wee’s Playhouse, before Reubens decided to change “Pee Wee” from a stage name to strictly the name of a character.

  15. cf. the not-too-different jerk-off which retained the schmucky overtones, as exemplified by the Coen brothers masterpiece written after, but taking place before, the jerk upset:

    “I don’t like your jerk-off name, I don’t like your jerk-off face, I don’t like your jerk-off behavior, and I don’t like you,” *best cinematic pause of all time* “jerk-off.”

  16. William Boyd says

    Re: “The compound “soda jerk” seems to predate 1919…” Dad, an Ohio State grad, class of ’42, worked his way through university as a “soda jerk” while economizing on nearly everything whether clothes (he owned two pair of trousers), rent (his ‘apartment’ was an unheated attic), and entertainment (though he did manage to return to Puerto Rico after Spring quarters).

  17. My realization that the usage of jerk changed, came from watching Annie Hall (1977) where Diane Keaton self-disparagingly refers to herself as a jerk when a modern audience might expect a word like idiot, doofus, or moron instead.

    “I’ve been such a jerk” seems to me to be still perfectly colloquial. It seems like a useful middle ground between “asshole” and “idiot”. It implies you have inconvenienced other people but through your stupidity, not out of malice.

  18. jack morava says

    Green’s dictionary starts with a hand job and I suspect the subsequent bleaching of the term results from embarassment, Momma what does wanker mean?

  19. Green’s has “beer jerker” (server, bartender, also drinker) from the 1860s, “soda jerker” from 1883, from the motion of pulling the handles/taps. (Wikipedia says soda fountains go all the way back to the mid-19th century.) Hathitrust does not find the shortened “soda jerk” until 1915, in the National Association of Retail Druggists Journal:

    So, Druggist Friends,
    It’s up to you:
    See what your “soda-jerk”
    Can do to plan, invent,
    And eke, devise some grape juice drinks
    To catch the eyes of thirst-fans
    As they comfort seek,
    When they with perspiration

    (Apparent hits in Google Books before 1915 are the usual Google bad metadata.) There’s no suggestion that “soda jerk” had any crude or insulting association at that time. But three decades later, in 1947, the Ice Cream Merchandising Institute delivered a full-page prescriptive lecture in an instructional pamphlet Let’s Sell Ice Cream:

    So you’re a Soda-Jerker, are you? Cute name, that. Look it up in the dictionary. See what Webster says about it. What? You can’t find it? Of course you can’t because Webster never recognized the name. …

    … Of course Webster doesn’t give a definition but there is one all the same. The definition is written clearly in the minds of the customers you serve when they hear the name “Soda Jerker”. It’s not complimentary, that definition. It’s not pleasant to hear. But it’s there. And as long as you think of yourself as a Soda Jerker, as long as you loudly publicize that obvious misnomer, just so long will your customers continue to silently repeat the definition that crosses their minds when they hear the word.

    What is that definition, you say?

    Well, running through a customer’s mind it goes something like this: Soda Jerker. Soda—fine. Jerker—ugh! Jerk! Halfwit. Moron. Stupid, silly individual who couldn’t add two and two and get four. Jerk! Shameful name! Disgusting name! Revolting name! Jerk . . . a fool, a clown, a dunce. Jerk . . .. somebody without sense enough to come in out of the rain.

    Employees are instructed to call themselves “soda dispensers” instead. Had no effect, of course. But the interesting thing is that a 1939 edition of Let’s Sell Ice Cream doesn’t mention “soda jerk(er)” at all in the chapter on soda fountains; perhaps in 1939 the square sorts at the Ice Cream Merchandising Institute weren’t yet aware of “jerk” as an insult, but by 1947 it was inescapable.

    (Let’s Sell Ice Cream also had a 1940 edition that a rare book dealer is selling for $175, but it’s not online, so no way of knowing what it had to say about soda jerks.)

  20. They messed up the lines:

    So, Druggist Friends, it’s up to you:
    See what your “soda-jerk” can do,
    To plan, invent, and eke, devise,
    Some grape juice drinks, to catch the eyes
    Of thirst-fans, as they comfort seek,
    When they with perspiration reek.

  21. Green’s has “beer jerker” (server, bartender, also drinker) from the 1860s, “soda jerker” from 1883, from the motion of pulling the handles/taps.

    sondheim’s lyrics for “Gee, Officer Krupke!” feel like a transitional use of “jerk”, with the older version appearing through a nice move triangulated through the soda-fountain job:

    “like be a soda-jerker / which means like be a shmo. …it’s not i’m anti-social, i’m only anti-work / glory-osky! that’s why i’m a jerk”

    “shmo” in yiddishized english is “fool, dunce, sucker, pushover”, contrasting with “shmuck”, which matches the later meaning of “jerk”. (oddly, “shmo” had some kind of moment in anglophone pop culture in the early 1960s – beyond West Side Story, it’s the main way that melina mercouri’s criminal mastermind describes peter ustinov’s character in Topkapi)

  22. It’s on purpose, the linebreaks go on like that for a whole page; somebody apparently thought it was funnier that way. (The reference to grape juice is an anti-alcohol message: sell soda, not wine.)

  23. David Eddyshaw says

    “Stupid” to “rude” is a pretty natural development.

    “Ignorant” actually normally means “rude” to a lot of L1 English speakers, at least in the UK. (I had to have this explicitly exlained to me in my youth, though I see that the dictionary does actually cite this sense.)

  24. David Marjanović says

    at least in the UK

    Supposedly also widespread in the US, at the very least in whatever “the South” is today. I’ve seen enough people take much more offense at the word than if they’d been told in other words they simply don’t know something, so I’ve been striving to avoid it, leaving me without a 1 : 1 equivalent to unwissend

  25. Robert Everett-Green says

    This discussion reminds me of a similar shift in the meaning of “slob,” which now means a messy, rude or unattractive person, but which formerly also meant someone who was merely ordinary. That’s the meaning employed by actress Robin Raymond, in the 1953 film The Glass Wall, when she describes herself as “just a big-hearted slob.”

  26. Keith Ivey says

    That sounds similar to shlub.

  27. @David Eddyshaw: “Ignorant” is (more or less) the oldest attested meaning of rude in English, according to the OED.* However, before it appeared in Middle English, the French and Latin etymons already had largely the same mixture of meanings as in English (“ignorant,” “rough,” “unrefined,” and metaphorical extensions thereof).

    * Assuming I still know how to read the entries….

  28. Brett, yes, that range of meanings had already developed in French, and they were all borrowed in about the same time period, as John Simpson observed when rude was revised in 2011. I previously linked to his update note, but it’s gone now, trashed along with most of the blog posts that were more than a couple of years old. Luckily, the Internet Archive caught this one, but they may not all be so lucky.

  29. Christopher Culver says

    Baader-Meinhof phenomenon here: soon after this LH post I was reading my 1969 edition of Chaucer, and in “The Reeve’s Tale”, the obsolete word daff in “I sal be halden a daff, a cokenay” is glossed as jerk, which in context can only be “stupid person” and not “rude person”.

    In this same Canterbury Tale is another example of semantic shift that is amusing. It is said of a woman: “There dorste no wight clepen hir but ‘dame’”, where dame is obviously the highest respect for a lady. At the same time, I watched Preminger’s 1944 film Laura where the dialogue turns on a character referring to women as “dames” as a marker of his low class milieu and disrespect for them. When exactly did the word go from respectful to pejorative? Wiktionary gives no answer.

  30. Pantomime Dame dates to the Restoration/C17th say the links from there. Earliest identified notable (= infamous) Dames listed as late C19th.

    OTOH the three Theatrical Dames — as appeared in Tea with Mussolini — you wouldn’t dare be anything but respectful to: just one withering look would burn you to a crisp at 40 paces.

    ‘Dame’ in the Laura (1944)/gumshoe ‘tec film noir 1920’s/There is nothing like a dame (South Pacific 1949) sense is more U.S. than Brit. Attested by 1902 says etymonline.

  31. I remember seeing The Jerk in the late ’80s and being confused by the title until I figured out the shift in meaning (or maybe asked someone older). I think a similar ambiguousness has developed around “schmuck.”

  32. David Marjanović says

    a cokenay

    …and so I find out that a Cockney really is a cock’s egg.

    Presumably one not brooded by a toad, because that would be a basilisk.

  33. just spotted the old sense of “jerk” in the wild – or whatever approximation of that watching a movie from 1982 is. anyhow: susan seidman’s Smithereens, about 33 minutes in: “you think i’m a jerk, don’t you? think you can just tell me anything and i’ll believe it, right?” (in fact, she does) (not that she’s wrong)

  34. possibly necessary context: the above said by a greenhorn from montana; it’s not totally clear to me whether the “you” in question, a self-conscious aspirer to downtown sophistication (from jersey, of course), is replying based on the old or the new meaning (i lean towards the latter, since she seems a little uncertain).

  35. Thanks for reminding me of that delightful movie

  36. These daddy longlegs aren’t really assholes, nor are they necessarily stupid. Somewhere along the “klutzes” scale, I’d say.

  37. Keith Ivey says

    Klutz for me is only about clumsiness.

  38. Same here.

  39. David Marjanović says

    These daddy longlegs aren’t really assholes

    They’re bullies.

  40. I do wish someone would build good semantic maps for terms of abuse in English and other languages. The usual blanket dictionary definitions “a contemptible person” etc. are near-useless.

  41. You must be channeling Geoff Nunberg, who wrote, about “asshole”:

    It’s not a word that anybody ever bothers to look up in a dictionary—and if you did, you’d just find something like “a contemptible person,” which is not very helpful.

    So he wrote a whole book on it. And I have no doubt that the daddy longlegs are assholes.

  42. @Yuval: You evidently have a different conception* of asshole than I do.

    * Of course, between arthropods and chordates, there is a fundamental difference between the nature of the anuses.** In humans, the anus is formed by the first invagination of an embryonic blastula, which in most animals forms the mouth instead. I don’t know whether there is evidence that the protostomes (“mouth first,” meaning most animals) and the deuterostomes (echinoderms, acorns worms, us) evolved separately, or whether the our clade underwent a “recto-cranial inversion” and exchanged maw and asshole. David Marjanović?

    ** The Latinate plural ani just doesn’t work for me.

  43. David Marjanović says

    Nothing is that simple. In arthropods, for example, the blastopore actually becomes both mouth and anus, and the part in between closes, IIRC. In vertebrates, the neuropore closes above the blastopore, and an entirely new anus forms later. (One suspects that the canalis neurentericus – the blastopore after the neuropore has closed – never closes in certain humans. But I digress.) Finally, flatworm-shaped animals without a separate anus occur at the base of the deuterostome tree: that’s where the age-old mystery of Xenoturbella goes for example.

    For easily 200 years it was suspected that deuterostomes are upside-down protostomes because a very superficial comparison of the central nervous systems of chordates and arthropods or annelids makes it look like that. But development genetics says no.

  44. Stu Clayton says

    One suspects that the canalis neurentericus – the blastopore after the neuropore has closed – never closes in certain humans.

    Frank Zappa recites the talking asshole scene from Naked Lunch

  45. a likely inspiration for one of the greatest movie musical scenes of the late 20th century, which unfortunately is apparently only online in an audio-only version. so to see the puppetry side of the duet between the assholes of sir richard burton and gaëtan dugas (better known as “patient zero”), you’ll need to find the full film. which you should: john greyson is a fantastic moviemaker, and Zero Patience is one of his best (i also especially love Fig Trees).

  46. @David Marjanović: I thought the current thinking (based on genetics as well as the presence of external cilia) was that Xenoturbella was even more basal than that—lying in the sister group of the entire Nephrozoa. Or has further evidence changed that again?

  47. David Marjanović says

    No – I was aware of the results of the 2011 paper (Xenacoelomorpha), but the 2016 papers (Xenacoelomorpha outside Nephrozoa) had somehow passed me by.

  48. I remember seeing The Jerk in the late ’80s and being confused by the title until I figured out the shift in meaning (or maybe asked someone older). I think a similar ambiguousness has developed around “schmuck.”

    I note that Leo Rosten, writing in The Joys of Yiddish (published late 1960s), has 3 definitions for “shmuck” (his preferred spelling)

        1. (Obscene) Penis

    (and there is a following line: “Never utter shmuck lightly or in the presence of women and children”)

        2. (Obscene) A dope, a jerk, a boob; a clumsy bumbling fellow

    (and he adds: “In this sense, shmuck, like its English equivalent, is widely used by males, and with gusto; few impolite words express comparable contempt.”)

    [bolding is mine to emphasize relevance to the topic]

        3. (Obscene) A detestable fellow; a son of a bitch

    So the ambiguity has been around for a while.

    Rosten’s entry ends with a joke whose punchline (playing on the second and first senses given) is:

    I just remembered. Every time and every place I was riding on that camel, I could hear people yelling: “Hey! Look at the shmuck on that camel!”

    Rosten’s etymology claims an origin from “German in some way or other, where Schmuck is ‘an ornament.’ jewellery’; shmuck is ‘neat,’ ‘smart,’ and shmücken means ‘to decorate’. In Yiddish, shmock means an ‘ornament’.”

    I recalled reading an alternate etymology from Polish smok, dragon. But I see that Wiktionary schmuck offers multiple etymologies, including both of those, without settling on one as being definite.

  49. David Marjanović says

    “Ornament” makes sense because that’s also what Putz means. Both have simply gone all the way down the euphemism treadmill in Yiddish.

    Compare “family jewels” with “bollocks”.

  50. At least in The Joys if Yiddish (as opposed to Yinglish), Rosten opined that putz was significantly more vulgar than schmuck. All I can say us that in my youth, from the 1970s to 1990s, it seemed that the reverse was true. Neither one was used much in the literal (penis) sense, but putz seemed to be a milder term of abuse.

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