The Jerk Fest

On jerk, jerky, and jerking (off), quoting (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).

Pat and Stewart answer a queryFrom Patricia T. O’Conner and Stewart Kellerman’s Grammarphobia site, “Jerk, jerky, and jerking off” on 9/6/16:

Q: What’s with “jerk”? A great verb and a greater noun. And what about “jerk seasoning”? And “jerk-offs” need their moment. Which leads me to this slur from my adolescent past: “He’s off jerking his gherkin.” It’s better with a Brooklyn accent!

A: There are several “jerks” to be considered here, not all of them related.

The “jerk” that refers to a sudden, sharp movement also gave us a couple of slang usages — the noun for a fool as well as the sexual verb so beloved of Alexander Portnoy.

But the “jerk” that we associate with Jamaican cooking comes from Quechua, the language spoken in the Inca Empire at the time of the Spanish conquest in the 1500s, which is still widely used among the indigenous people of South America.

We’ll save the culinary “jerk” for later and start with the first “jerk” to come into English, the verb and noun referring to a quick movement.

This “jerk” was known from the mid-1500s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Originally the verb “jerk” meant to strike or lash, as with a whip or a switch, and the noun “jerk” meant such a stroke or lash, Oxford says.

The word in both forms — verb and noun — was “apparently echoic” in origin, the OED says. In other words, it sounded like what it meant.

Here’s the dictionary’s earliest example of the verb in written English: “Than he beateth and gierketh vs a lytle wyth a rodde.” (From Spyrytuall & Precyouse Pearle, a 1550 translation of a German religious tract by Otto Werdmueller.)

And this is the earliest known example of the noun: “To the manne … foure score ierkes or lsshes with a skourge” (From The Fardle of Facions [“collection of customs”], a 1555 translation of a Latin work of anthropology by Joannes Boemus.)

Over the next half a century or so, “jerk” acquired the ordinary meaning it has today. A “jerk,” in the words of the OED, came to mean a “quick suddenly arrested movement; a sharp sudden pull, throw, push, thrust, or twist,” and the verb meant to make such a movement.

The earliest written example of the new noun usage is from Weedes, a 1575 poem by the Elizabethan writer George Gascoigne: “The stiffe and strongest arme / Which geues a ierke and hath a cunning loose; / Shoots furdest stil.”

The OED has a questionable 1589 citation for the verb. The earliest definite appearance is in The Puritaine, or the Widdow of Watling-Streete, a 1607 comedy whose author is listed as “W. S.” on the title page: “Let him play a litle, weele ierk him vp of a sudaine.”

(Because of the “W. S.,” the play has at times been attributed to Shakespeare, but modern scholars reject that attribution.)

By the way, the “i” in those early “ierke” and “ierk” spellings of “jerk” was pronounced as a “j.”

We should mention here that this new use of “jerk” had a predecessor in the Middle Ages, the earlier noun and verb “yerk” (sometimes “yark”). This word was written and pronounced with a “y.”

This “yerk,” which was known as early as the 1420s, started out as a verb used to describe the action of a shoemaker yanking hard to tighten leather stitches. It soon became synonymous with “jerk” and was used in many of the same senses.

While “yerk” (or “yark”) survived well into the 19th century, it’s now mostly dialectal, the OED says. And it apparently never had the slang meanings that “jerk” acquired in the late 19th and early 20th century.

These slang uses of “jerk” are the noun for a worthless or offensive person and the verb (often in the form “jerk off”) that means to masturbate.

The sexual slang came first, and the derivation is obvious. Considering the meaning of the word that showed up in the late 16th century (“sharp sudden pull, throw, push, thrust”), it’s a wonder that this sense of “jerk” wasn’t recorded earlier.

While the OED’s earliest citation is from 1937 (for “jerk off”), the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang has citations for the masturbatory “jerk” from the 1880s and “jerk off” from the early 1890s.

The slang dictionary’s earliest example is from Stag Party, an 1888 collection of erotic humor that includes a fictitious list of prices set by a “Whore’s Union” in New York:

“Common, old-fashioned f—k $1 … Pudding jerking $2.” (As we recently wrote on the blog, “pudding” and “pud” are slang terms for the penis.)

And slang dictionaries published in the 1880s and ’90s carried these definitions, according to Random House: Jerking (low), masturbation” … “To jerk one’s juice or jelly … to masturbate.”

Since we mentioned Alexander Portnoy, we’ll include this Random House citation: “Jerk your precious little dum-dum ad infinitum!” (From Philip Roth’s novel Portnoy’s Complaint, 1968.)

Now what about the “jerk” that means a contemptuous person, a usage that began showing up in American slang in the early 1930s?

This “jerk” probably doesn’t derive (as some have suggested) from the notion of a chronic masturbator. Neither the OED nor Random House makes that connection. The OED discusses this slang term in an entry that begins with the lashing and pulling senses of the noun.

So it seems likely that in the sense of a stupid, worthless, or contemptible person, “jerk” probably derives from the physical motion of jerking, like the “jerk” in “jerkwater.”

In the 1870s, as we wrote in 2013, a “jerkwater” meant a small branch line of a railroad or stagecoach (one to which water had to be brought, or “jerked”). As Random House notes, the adjective “jerkwater” is even older, dating from the 1860s.

The noun “jerkwater” soon came to mean an insignificant or hick town. And in the early 1900s, the adjective “jerkwater” was sometimes abbreviated to “jerk” and meant “small-time, second-rate, mediocre,” according to Green’s Dictionary of Slang.

This sense of the adjective “jerk” as insignificant or provincial suggests that the noun “jerk” originally conveyed the notion of a clueless rube.

As further evidence, Random House says the slang adjective “jerky” (early 1930’s), meaning “imbecilic; stupid, silly,” was influenced by “jerk town.”

On the other hand (if we may use the expression), the masturbation sense of the verb “jerk off” inspired the use of the noun “jerk-off” for a stupid, lazy, or worthless person, according to Random House.

The slang dictionary’s earliest citation is from Christ in Concrete, a 1937 novel by Pietro di Donato: “He was … the half-pint jerk-off.”

You mention the phrase “jerk the gherkin.” Here, the euphemism “gherkin” was probably chosen for the rhyme (“jerk”/“gherk”) as well as for the comic value of the pickle as a sight gag. The sources we’ve checked date it no earlier than the 1960s.

(We’ve never gone into the etymology of “gherkin,” so we’ll say briefly that it was borrowed in the mid-17th century from Dutch, in which it was a diminutive of “cucumber.”)

Now that we’re on the subject of food, we’ll turn to the noun “jerky” (the dried meat), the verb “jerk” (to dry meat), and the adjective “jerk” (describing a style of cooking native to Jamaica).

These three culinary terms ultimately come from the Quechua noun ccharqui (strips of dried meat) and verb ccharquini (to dry meat), according to the OED, though the linguistic journey has a few twists and turns.

The words entered Spanish (as the noun charqui and the verb charquear) after the conquest of the Incas, whose Andean empire was based in what is now Cuzco, Peru.

Spanish colonizers apparently carried the verb charquear to Jamaica after occupying the island in the 1500s. The British then Anglicized the verb after driving out the Spaniards in the 1600s.

During a 1687 visit to Jamaica, Sir Hans Sloane, a British physician and naturalist, picked up the Anglicized word, “jirking,” which the OED describes as a corruption of charquear.

In A Voyage to the Islands Madera, Barbados, Nieves, S. Christophers and Jamaica, a memoir of his voyage published in 1707, he writes of the dried meat made from swine “running wild in the Country amongst the Woods” and “sought out by Hunters with gangs of Dogs.”

“After pursuit,” he says in an OED citation that we’ve expanded, “they are shot or pierc’d through with Lances, cut open, the bones taken out, and the flesh gash’d on the inside into the skin, filled with salt, and exposed to the sun, which is called Jirking.”

(Incidentally, the plant specimens that Sloane collected on that voyage were the foundation of the British Museum.)

Similarly, the noun “jerky” (as in “beef jerky”) is derived from the Spanish noun charqui. The first appearance in the OED is from Three Years in California, an 1850 memoir by Walter Colton: “A junk of bread, and a piece of the stewed jerky.”

Finally, the word “jerk,” used as a noun, adjective, and verb in reference to the style of cooking native to Jamaica, has its roots in Africa as well as the Caribbean.

Food writers believe that jerk cooking evolved from the pork curing practices of the indigenous Taino and Arawak inhabitants of Jamaica as well as the spicing methods of African slaves who escaped when the British drove the Spanish from the island.

The OED, which traces this sense of the word “jerk” to the Spanish verb charquear, defines its use for the Jamaican style of cooking this way:

“Designating meat (esp. pork or chicken) which has been marinated in a spicy mixture of seasonings (typically prominently featuring allspice) before being smoke-cured or barbecued. Also: designating a seasoning or sauce used in this method of preparation.”

The OED’s earliest example of the usage is from a Jamaican newspaper, the Daily Gleaner in Kingston (May 10, 1930): “You could also buy on the race course from the jerk pork men a quattie [coin worth 1.5 pence] jerk pork with bread and mustard.”

And here’s a more recent citation from World Food: Caribbean (2001), by Bruce Geddes: “Your first bite of jerk may lead you to believe that hot pepper is used by the bowlful. However, the most essential ingredient is allspice.”

Two ways of being a jerk. On Ben Lindbergh’s The Ringer site, “The Forgotten Former Meaning of “Jerk”: The curious pop culture etymology of “jerk,” from 1979’s ‘The Jerk’ through today. (Or, “When did jerk stop meaning ‘stupid’?” “) on 7/8/23:

In the most famous scene from The Jerk, Steve Martin’s Navin Johnson, who’s about to be back in rags after briefly rolling in riches, slowly mopes out of his mansion. “I don’t need any of this stuff!” he shouts, surveying his scattered possessions. But as he shuffles toward the door, bric-a-brac keeps ending up in his arms: an ashtray, a paddleball toy, a remote control, a matchbook, a lamp, a magazine. “Well, what are you looking at?” Navin yells at his heartbroken wife, Marie (Bernadette Peters), as he prepares to pick up one more memento, a chair. “What do you think I am, some kind of jerk or something?”

If someone watching the 1979 film for the first time in 2023 were to answer that rhetorical question, they might say, “No, not really.” In that scene, sort of. In other scenes, nah. 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 are many reasons no one would remake The Jerk the same way today, but if one were to retell a similar story, it would need a different name. Navin was a 5-seed in The Ringer’s bracket of best pop culture jerks, as he had to be: He’s the titular character in a well-known movie called The Jerk! But it didn’t feel like an upset when he made an early exit — undoubtedly holding his chair — against 12-seed J. Jonah Jameson. Now, that guy’s a jerk.

On Monday, my colleague Andrew Gruttadaro pinpointed the placement of “jerk” on the asshole hierarchy. A jerk, he concluded, ranks somewhere between a brat and a dirtbag. Readers could and did quibble with whether a jerk is more or less asshole-ish than that and whether certain members of the bracket fit the bill. However, what wasn’t in dispute is that jerks are somewhere on the spectrum of “bad and annoying people” — not just slow-witted ones. Navin would never have qualified if not for a fortuitous title — to modern minds, a far from fitting one.

In 1979, though, the title didn’t seem like such a misnomer. In the 40-plus years since The Jerk came out, the noun’s meaning has evolved (or devolved, if we’re going by behavior). We can track that change via plot synopses. Here’s how IMDb describes The Jerk: “A simpleminded, sheltered country boy suddenly decides to leave his family home to experience life in the big city, where his naivete is both his best friend and his worst enemy.”

Compare that to the logline of the less memorable movie The Jerk Theory, which came out 30 years later: “An aspiring recording artist, Adam, is burned by a bad relationship experience and decides that if women won’t respond to the ‘nice guy’ then he’ll be ‘the jerk.’”

Or the TV series Jerk, which came out 10 years after that: “Tim has cerebral palsy, which means that people judge him, and his crumpled tissue of a body. But usually they judge him wrongly. Because what they don’t realize is that inside that severely disabled, fragile body is a bit of an asshole.”

“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.”

The OED’s first reference derives from Albin J. Pollock’s The Underworld Speaks, a 1935 book that “contains expressions gathered from convicts and ex-convicts — from murderers to embezzlers, dope-fiends, narcotic traffickers, racketeers, politicians, bosses, bootleggers, law enforcement officers, 100% coppers, as well as from other classes of men and women who possess worldly experience.” Those conduits to the seamy side of society, it seems, informed Pollock that a “jerk”— which, as a close cousin to jerk-off, probably began its pejorative journey as a reference to masturbation [AZ: but see above] — was “a boob; chump; a sucker.”

“That was the prevailing sense for decades and lived on in Steve Martin’s The Jerk,” Zimmer says. In Born Standing Up, Martin’s 2007 autobiography, he recounts how The Jerk got its name: “We were still mulling over titles for the movie. One day I said to [director Carl Reiner], ‘It needs to be something short, yet have the feeling of an epic tale. Like Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot, but not that. Like The Jerk.’ The title, after a few more days of analyzing, stuck.” At a time when “idiot” and “jerk” were widely considered synonyms, The Jerk was a natural choice.

However, the future, more dominant meaning made cameos almost from the start, as evidenced by a Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang entry that conflates the two: “A contemptible fool, dolt. An offensive or worthless person.” According to Zimmer, “You can see the ‘low-grade asshole’ meaning percolating along the way. … Some other examples I’ve seen starting in the 1950s seem like they lean toward an asshole-ish interpretation, and that meaning takes over in the ’80s or so.”

In other words, right after The Jerk. In fact, “the 1970s is when you start to see the obnoxious meaning really take off,” says Michael Adams, an English professor and specialist in lexicography at Indiana University Bloomington and the author of Slang: The People’s Poetry and other books about language. Not only was there “a rising use of ‘jerk,’” but there was also “the absolutely predictable development” of “compound forms like jerk ass, jerk face, jerk wad, jerk weed. … That is another reflection of the obnoxious meaning, and basically a generation of heavy slang users looking for a way not to sound like they come from the 1930s by using jerk in the traditional way of their parents and grandparents.” Martin, Adams notes, was in his mid-30s when The Jerk came out, old enough that in contrast to the kids on the cutting edge of jerk usage, he would have been “referring to an older use of the word.”

It’s fairly easy to find references to jerk’s now-outmoded meaning that predate The Jerk. Take, for example, a 1972 episode of The Brady Bunch in which Marcia embarrasses herself and her older brother on her first day in high school. “She acted like a jerk, that’s what happened,” Greg complains to their father, continuing, “She made a jerk out of me.”

After The Jerk, though, those usages were fewer and farther between. 1982’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High contained two old-school uses of “jerk,” and a 1987 Cheers episode features good-natured sad sack Cliff Clavin (rhymes with Navin) saying, “I don’t know how you guys did it, but you made me out as, uh, some kind of a jerk,” as he bungles stowing a projection screen. Beyond that, the uses gravitate toward the more modern meaning, though the two interpretations overlapped for a while. Home Alone (1990) seems to use it both ways. In Goodfellas, from the same year, Paulie tells Henry, “Don’t make a jerk out of me” — a line that originally read, “Don’t make me a fool.” But Goodfellas depicted a conversation from decades earlier; in contemporary exchanges, “jerk” and “asshole” converged. By the mid-’90s, the now-familiar use was cemented: See, for instance, Tom Cruise as Jerry Maguire in 1996, berating himself for losing a top draft pick “because a hockey player’s kid made me feel like a superficial jerk.”

The use of “stupid jerk,” once almost redundant, persisted for some time. But the use of “jerk” alone to identify a dunderhead sounds anachronistic, if not nonsensical, now to anyone who added “jerk” to their vocabulary after the “dunce” definition fell out of fashion. I first became aware of the generational jerk shift years ago when my mom — who’s not too far from Martin’s age — used it in the Navin sense. As someone who came of age early in the heyday of jerk’s pivot to “prick,” this shook me to the core. Did I not know what “jerk” meant? How long had I hurled the wrong insult at assholes and dicks?

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!”

If not for Navin, I might question whether I’d discovered a new case of the Mandela effect, or invented a vast “jerk” conspiracy. But no: There’s the jerk in The Jerk, acting quite un-jerk-like and, in the process, reassuring me that the semantic drift of “jerk” is just part of the great glacial motion that reshapes the lexical landscape.

Why jerk took this trajectory is tougher to determine. Maybe the new jerk serves a more important purpose as a stand-in for asshole; we still have “ass,” without the “hole,” to indicate an imbecile or blockhead. “Of all the ‘asshole’ substitutes,” Geoffrey Nunberg wrote in his 2012 book, Ascent of the A-Word, “jerk comes closest. It’s the world usually chosen by people who want to convey the meaning of asshole without actually using the word.” It is handy to have a word we can use to put someone down without, as Nunberg says, “the same brazen effrontery.”

Zimmer isn’t so sure. “It does help to have a less obscene alternative to ‘asshole,’ as Nunberg suggests,” he says. “But it’s hard to say exactly why terms shift semantically like this — it’s not simply a matter of ‘usefulness.’” Adams speculates that jerk just sounds better this way. “It’s kind of a harsh word. [AZ: phonologically harsh, with the initial affricate and the final /k/ — harsh in a way that fool is not] So it’s said with harsh feeling and it reflects that harsh feeling. And so it may match up with the obnoxious-person meaning a little bit better than it does the foolish-person meaning.” Plus, he says, the progression of jerk’s meaning “makes a natural sense to me, because let’s face it, some idiots are obnoxious and some people are obnoxious because they’re idiots.”

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?

To linguists, though, the tendency for language to rewrite itself is just the way of the word. “That stuff happens all the time,” Adams says. “It’s the malleability of the language to express new meanings. … We could look up almost any word like jerk and find that it’s gone through some transformation of meaning.” It’s best to embrace the inevitable; language is a living document, and we’re all lifelong learners.

Some things do stay the same: Jerk “can be used as a term of endearment in a way that ‘asshole’ can’t,” Zimmer says. Nunberg, in his book, and Zimmer, via email, cite the 1941 Howard Hawks film Ball of Fire, in which Barbara Stanwyck (playing showgirl Sugarpuss O’Shea) says about Gary Cooper’s character — a slang lexicographer! — “I love him because he doesn’t know how to kiss, the jerk.” “Sugarpuss isn’t calling Potts an asshole, of course, just an obtuse, hapless fellow,” Zimmer says. “The ‘asshole’ reading would have been anachronistic for 1941.”

Navin’s no better at kissing in ’79: As Marie awaits their first lip-lock, he licks the side of her face instead.

That affectionate “jerk” from the ’40s isn’t so different from Sarah saying, “I did it because I’m in love with you, you jerk!” to Bailey on Party of Five, or Carla saying, “You big jerk!” after angry sex with Turk on Scrubs, or Leslie lovingly (and repeatedly) calling Ron a jerk on the last season of Parks and Recreation. “‘Jerk’ can still be used endearingly,” Zimmer says, adding, “The old sense of foolishness lingers, allowing ‘jerk’ to be used for someone lovably slow on the uptake. I’d say ‘jerk’ hasn’t simply moved from one pejorative extreme to the other, but remains flexible in its meaning.” There may still be a bit of The Jerk left in “jerk” after all.


5 Responses to “The Jerk Fest”

  1. Robert Coren Says:

    I’m a few years younger than you – and thus quite a lot younger than your mother – and I’m quite sure that I grew up with the “idiot” sense of jerk, and in my mind that’s still its primary meaning. I guess I’m an outlier.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Wait! Neither of these passages was written by me, so the mother in the second isn’t mine. I did in fact grow up with the ‘idiot’ sense, but picked up the ‘asshole’ sense as well some time ago.

      • Robert Coren Says:

        Oh, sorry! Sloppy reading ion my part. I can’t tell from any of the above how old Lindbergh is.

  2. Stewart Kramer Says:

    It reminds me of the different senses of “rude” (uncultured, then impolite, then insulting).

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Yes, and this probably merits a follow-up posting. Both are cases of pejoration (literally ‘worsening’) — a negatively tinged meaning becoming more negative in content. Which in cases like this would be better termed deprecation or derogation, with a mildly critical judgment elevated to a more serious (and more specific) charge. Seen also in the development of queer from a judgment of oddness, strangeness, or peculiarity to an insulting attribution of homosexuality (then ameliorated by the processes of reclaiming epithets).

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