The Grammarphobia Blog

Why is a hick town a jerkwater?

Q: The two citations for “jerkwater” in my dictionary refer to remote, unimportant towns. Are there other uses for the word? And does it refer to pulling down the arm of a water tank or some other kind of jerking?

A: The term “jerkwater” was originally an adjective that described a stagecoach, train, or other conveyance serving a remote provincial area, according to the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang.

The earliest example of the usage in Random House is from the March 1869 issue of the Overland Monthly, a California-based magazine published by Bret Harte.

The citation describes mules and oxen carrying mining supplies as “ ‘jerkwater’ stages, which had been three or four days making the trip of one hundred and ten miles.”

The dictionary’s next example of the adjectival usage—from the May 15, 1909, issue of the Saturday Evening Post—uses the word to describe a railroad train:

“The farther along Flagg got in the list the more disgusted he became with the prospect of living on jerk-water trains.” (We’ve gone to the original to expand the Random House citation.)

The slang dictionary also has examples of “jerkwater” used as a noun for a stagecoach or train serving a rural area. The first citation for the noun is from The Sazerac Lying Club, an 1878 book by Fred H. Hart:

“I wish I may be runned over by a two-horse jerk-water if there was a sage-hen in sight.”

And here’s a 1905 example—from Dialect Notes, a publication of the American Dialect Society—of the noun used for a train: “Jerkwater (train), n. Train on a branch railway. ‘Has the jerkwater come in yet?’ ”

Why was a train serving a remote area called a “jerkwater”? The Oxford English Dictionary points the reader to this explanation in Santa Fe: The Railroad That Built an Empire, a 1945 book by James Marshall:

“The Santa Fe was the Jerkwater Line—because train crews, when the water got low, often had to stop by a creek, form a bucket brigade and jerk water from the stream to fill the tender tank.”

By the late 19th century, the term “jerkwater” was also being used as an adjective to describe something provincial or insignificant, according to Random House.

The dictionary’s first citation for this usage is from the July 25, 1897, issue of the Chicago Tribune: “John J. Ingalls regards the Swiss mission as a jerkwater job, and would not take it if it were offered to him.”

The first Random House example of the adjective used to describe a small town is from “Above the Law,” a 1918 short story by Max Brand: “A jerk-water shanty village like Three Rivers.”

Interestingly, the dictionary’s earliest example of “jerkwater” used as a noun for a small town (from a June 1927 issue of the journal American Speech) suggests the usage was already on the way out:

“The advent of gasoline … has brought the expression filling-station to take the place of tank town or jerkwater.”

You’ve also asked about other uses for the word. Random House has many examples of the term used broadly to mean insignificant: “jerkwater hotels” (1936), “jerkwater cowcollege” (1938-39), “jerk water country” (1953), “jerkwater paper” (1983), and so on.

By the way, the word “hick” in the title of this post is derived from an old nickname for someone called Richard.

In the mid-1500s, according to the OED, the nickname came to mean “an ignorant countryman; a silly fellow, booby.” By the early 20th century, the term was being used adjectivally to mean unsophisticated or provincial.

Although the provincial sense of “hick” originated in Britain, Oxford says, it’s now chiefly an American usage. 

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