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, Philippine, British, Yiddish, and other sources of the word. 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.
Of all the suggested origins of “jitney,” the most likely—or rather the least unlikely—is that it’s derived (via the French or Creole spoken in Louisiana) from jeton, French for a token.
However, language sleuths haven’t found any evidence linking the word to French or Creole, and the earliest sighting of the word was in Kentucky, hundreds of miles from New Orleans.
We may not know where “jitney” comes from, but we do know a lot about its life after the word first showed up in late 19th-century American English.
The earliest written example of “jitney” in Green’s Dictionary of Slang is from 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.’ ”
The word “jitney” here (it’s sometimes spelled “gitney”) meant either five cents or a nickel, the fare to ride minibuses at the time, according to slang dictionaries.
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.
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