jack or jerk?

(It’s about vernacular masturbatory verbs, so it’s deemed not suitable for kids, and of course it’s not to the taste of the sexually modest.)

Why would anyone care whether a guy favors jack off or jerk off — or something else, like jag off or toss off or wank — as his masturbatory verb?

Street talk about sexual practices and unsavory bodily substances varies over time and place and context, differs from one speech community to another, just like all kinds of talk: wank and toss off are distinctly BrE, jag off distinctly AmE, and jack off and jerk off both seem to be originally AmE, though they’ve spread more widely; guys will have different preferences for vocabulary in this domain, mostly according to their personal experience with the verbs, and they’ll know that some guys use different verbs. Why doesn’t it stop at that?

Well, this is linguistic variation, and it pretty much never stops at that. There’s a general human inclination to believe that your own practices are the best ones, the right ones; and also a general human inclination to accept the practices of your community, which are likely to be supported by explicit teaching and advice, and even enforced with sanctions, as the best ones, the right ones.

So we find people deploring other people’s linguistic practices, often in extravagant terms (disgusting, ignorant, …), sometimes ascribing dubious or discreditable motives to other people’s choices (hypercorrection and varieties of avoidance are often cited, as are faddism, reflexive following of fashion, and misguided attempts to sound clever). Even for masturbatory verbs, where there’s no explicit teaching and no advice literature.

Now, one such example, in a recent Facebook exchange between Jeff Shaumeyer (a jerk-off user) and me (a jack-off user), which turns out to be surprisingly complex, because it involves a second-order effect, with responses to (first-order) critiques of the usage jerk off, that it’s too crude, too vivid (the imagery is of the jerking motion in masturbation, and in the jerking of the body in orgasm — jerk was used for ‘copulate with’ before it was extended to masturbation, and is still so used by some speakers). This critique has led to the idea that guys who use jack off do so (only) because they’re (fastidiously) avoiding the gutsy, authentically masculine jack off — a gratuitous attribution of motives that I stringently objected to.

Still more. As if this were not already complex enough, two further factors might intervene in the choice of masturbatory verb: the historical origin of jack off (like all origin tales, whether factually accurate or fabricated, this is in fact irrelevant to current usage — but it seems impossible to stamp out the etymological fallacy, so I’ll give the lexicographers’ origin story some brief coverage); and interference from the usage of the noun jerk, which once had primarily the sense ‘dunce, fool, inept person’ (which would have little relevance to the choice of jerk off vs. jack off — no more than the Jamaican culinary sense of jerk in jerk salmon / chicken / etc.), but has developed the very prominent sense ‘obnoxious person, asshole’ — which it would be judicious not to invoke with a masturbatory verb. There’s now a fair amount of literature about non-masturbatory uses of  a noun or verb jerk — especially about asshole-jerk — so I’ll move that discussion to a separate posting, in which I can quote in full two excellent surveys of this domain (from the Grammarphobia site in 2016, from The Ringer site last month, the second of these using research by lexicographer Ben Zimmer reported on his Wall Street Journal column (which is behind a paywall).

The history of jack off. The verb jerk off pretty clearly came first. Then, according to GDoS, you get the noun jack, generic for a man, pressed into service to replace the jerk (copulatory or masturbatory) of jerk off. The OED (under the verb jerk-1, in an entry revised in 2019) has jerk off first — intransitive from 1865 on, transitive from 1904 on. Then (under the verb jack-2, in an entry revised in 2018), jack off — intransitive from 1916 on, transitive from ?1927-8.

The OED does not speculate on the origins of these usages, but it introduces a factor that throws cold water on the idea that jack off is a euphemistic replacement for an overly vivid jerk off: the usage labels that it assigns to the two masturbatory verbs. The verb jerk off is labeled merely colloquial, that is, slang (with no regional label); while jack off gets the minatory label coarse slang (and is marked as originally and chiefly U.S.). That is, some professional lexicographers, looking at cites in their context, do not hold to the folk theory of masturbatory usage that Jeff Shaumeyer reports running up against, but instead find jack off to be, in loose parlance, a lot dirtier than jerk off.

Meanwhile, I’m just an ordinary speaker here, with only my personal experience and my preferences to go on, without any systematic overview of the facts. I note that the OED lexicographers didn’t have a systematic overview either, but they did have a sampling, which is more than I or the people JS has tangled with have.

The JS – AZ exchange. My 8/17 posting “At the margins of sleep time” had a section about masturbation — jacking off in my street talk —  as a preparation for sleep, to which Jeff Shaumeyer reacted in a Facebook posting:

— JS: [jerking off is] still my old fuddy-duddy go-to phrase for masturbating, but which many younger folks seem to find embarrassing or objectionable in some way.

— AZ > JS: You … make the mistake of thinking that people other than you use jack off only because they’re prissily avoiding jerk off; you’re quick to attribute motivations for people’s usage. I’ve been a jack off user since I was, oh, 10, and I never heard any other usage from anyone around me. (I did hear jerk off  occasionally, and thought it was a peculiar British usage; it made some kind of sense, but it was totally alien to me.) Kids around me even had a sort of folk etymology for jack off, connecting it to jack up usages (‘to increase sharply in intensity, to excite or arouse’). I’m pretty sure that I’m among a great number of other American men with jack off as simply their customary street-talk expression. STOP DISSING US.

— JS: Ok. I don’t mind either and I didn’t mean to be exclusionary. Still, I’ve known a couple of people who’ve told me they prefer jack off because they didn’t like saying jerk. One was an editor who objected to my use of jerk off in a story [AZ: JS publishes gay porn stories; is there an editor of gay porn who thinks jerk is too crude?].

On uses of the V + Prt combination jack up, assembled from several sources. The presumable original is ‘to raise something through the use of a jack, a simple machine used to lift things’: We’ll need to  jack up the car / jack the car up  before we can change the tire.

Then ‘to raise or increase sharply’: Stop  jacking up the volume / jacking the volume up  on the tv. This store keeps  jacking up its prices / jacking its prices up.

And then ‘to stimulate, excite, arouse, or motivate, possibly using drugs’: [in the passive] You could tell the guy was jacked up on something. [in the active] Even at 80, Mick Jagger can still  jack up an audience / jack an audience up. Hank uses an old sweaty jockstrap to  jack up Tony / jack Tony up  for sex

You can see how someone might conclude that jack off was dirty talk.

Now, for the Jerk Fest, a many-branched celebration of jerk, jerky, and jerking stuff: coming in another posting.

6 Responses to “jack or jerk?”

  1. J B Levin Says:

    And here I thought, based upon purely cosmetic considerations, that “jack off” came from “ejaculate”. I’m not surprised to be completely wrong, though.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Wonderful, and so learnèd. But, really, so deeply unlikely. Sort of like a prospective masturbatory verb turb off or a prospective urinary verb mict (from micturate). It’s not entirely impossible that a street word could be based on a technical or medical term, it’s just very unlikely.

  2. Robert Southwick Richmond Says:

    If men jack off, do women jill off?

    • arnold zwicky Says:


    • J B Levin Says:

      Penn Jillette uses “jill off” in his podcast “Penn’s Sunday School”.

    • Danny Boy - London Derriere Says:

      A few years back, I found myself in a debate of sorts with other Urban Dictionary commenters over the best definition for the entry “Netflix and Jill”. (This was at a time when the original form for a number of variants like this, “Netflix and chill”, had some currency.)

      When I looked it up just now, the definition at the top is mine from December 29, 2016. I don’t know if that goes by chronology or voting, but still I’ll accept it as some sort of endorsement!

      It reads “Watch videos and masturbate, applying only to females. Plays off of both Netflix and Chill and Jill off.” This does presuppose that “jill off” is the female specification of “jack off”.

      Some other submitted definitions for “Netflix and Jill” agreed on the two factors of solo performance and female agent, but also a good number omitted one or both.

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