The Grammarphobia Blog

Jerk, jerky, and jerking off

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 lasshes 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.”

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