[NOTE: This post was updated on July 3, 2016.]
Q: My wife went to a country schoolhouse that was being swallowed up as Omaha grew. Unlike the modern schools in town, hers had no facilities for a hot lunch. But once a month the school system would deliver a hot lunch (usually hot dogs) called a “jitney lunch.” What does “jitney” mean and where does it come from?
A: You’d be surprised at how much time and effort language scholars have spent trying to find out where the word “jitney” comes from.
In Studies in Etymology and Etiology (2009), for example, David L. Gold explores possible French, Russian, Spanish, British, Yiddish, and other sources. His conclusion: origin unknown.
All the other references we’ve checked, including the Oxford English Dictionary and the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, agree: origin unknown.
But in 2016, the language scholar Stephen Goranson of the Duke University Libraries managed to confirm what had previously been only conjecture: The source of “jitney” was jetnée, an African-American word, via the French or Creole spoken in Louisiana, for jeton, French for “token.”
Goranson cites a ditty described in a 1915 issue of the Literary Digest as “a little catch popular with the Louisianian French-Speaking Negro”:
“Mettons jetnée danz il trou / Et parcourons sur la rue— / Mettons jetnée—si non vous / Vous promenez à pied nou! This may be freely translated: Put a jitney in the slot / And over the street you ride; / Put a jitney—for if not / You’ll foot it on your hide.”
The 1915 article suggests that jetnée/“jitney” was coined by Southern blacks to mean a nickel, and was influenced by French jeton or jetton.
Now for the news. As Goranson says, “The following newly reported discovery appears to confirm such an origin by giving—in an African-American newspaper in 1898—a transitional form.”
Here he cites an article, published in January 1898 in the Illinois Record, headlined “Spingfield South-End Happenings”:
“What little jetney coachman on S. 6th street has such a big head he cant put on the coachman’s hat he only wears the coat with brass buttons?”
Goranson adds: “Note association with coach as well as (presumably) coin (or token), of little worth.”
Once established, the term for a bus or coach token spread quickly. As linguists have previously reported, the word showed up the following year, spelled “jitney,” in the Dec. 16, 1899, issue of the Morning Herald in Lexington, KY:
“ ‘Can’t spare de change. Me granmaw died in Sout’ Afriky an’ I need dis to float me over ter de fun’ral.’ ‘Quit yer kiddin’ an’ let me have a jitney.’ ”
Slang dictionaries say that at the turn of the century, “jitney” (sometimes spelled “gitney”) meant either five cents or a nickel, the fare to ride minibuses at the time.
But by the early 20th century, the term was being used adjectivally to refer to the minibuses themselves. The OED’s earliest example is in a Nov. 28, 1914, letter from Los Angeles published in the Jan. 14, 1915, issue of the Nation:
“This autumn automobiles, mostly of the Ford variety, have begun in competition with the street cars in this city. The newspapers call them ‘Jitney buses.’ ”
Soon the word was being used by itself as a noun for the minibuses. Here’s an OED example from the April 16, 1915, issue of the New York Evening Post: “The jitney wears out the streets and should contribute to their repair.”
You’ll be especially interested in the next step in the evolution of “jitney”—as a noun used attributively (that is, adjectivally) to mean cheap or shoddy or inferior. Here’s how Oxford explains the new usage:
“So, on account of the low fare or the poor quality of these buses, used attrib. to denote anything cheap, improvised, or ramshackle.”
The earliest published reference in the OED for this new usage is from Somewhere in Red Gap (1916), Harry Leon Wilson’s sequel to his better-known novel Ruggles of Red Gap (1915):
“It would be an ideal position for him. Instead of which he runs this here music store, sells these jitney pianos and phonographs and truck like that.”
As for those hot dogs served at your wife’s country school once a month, we imagine the meal was referred to as a “jitney lunch” either because it was cheap or uninspiring or because it was delivered by a jitney.
Check out our books about the English language