AP

Some jagoffs are trying to get Pittsburgh's go-to insult into a real English-language dictionary.

Sitting next to a guy vaping away at a Stillers game? Like any self-respecting Yinzer, you'd probably put down your chip-chop ham sandwich and call him a jagoff.

But unlike "vape," announced as the Oxford Dictionary's word of the year earlier this week, Pittsburgh's go-to insult won't be showing up in an English-language dictionary any time soon. One Pittsburghese speaker is trying to change that.

John Chamberlin, a local media and marketing consultant, is making the push to get "jagoff" into Merriam-Webster's hallowed pages. So far, he has over 1,500 signatures on his Change.org page, which launched last month.

As bad as it the word sounds, it has rather innocent origins. Linguist and Carnegie Mellon University professor Barbara Johnstone tells the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that jagoff's roots hail from the northern British Isles, where most of Pittsburgh's first English-speaking settlers came from. There, "to jag" meant "to prick or poke." That's why in Pittsburgh, thorn bushes are often called jaggerbushes. When you're calling someone a jagoff, you're really just saying they're annoying—but the additional innuendo adds color to the insult.

The Pittsburgh accent as seen in the Kroll Show sketch, "Pawnsylvania".

According to the Post-Gazette's Brian O'Neill, Chamberlin's biggest supporter so far is the city's mayor, Bill Peduto. The mayor explained his support for the petition on local radio recently, saying that the city needs to keep embracing its quirkiness.

Quirkiness is a branding opportunity for most cities, so it's no surprise this movement is being headed by a marketing professional. Though decades removed from an era where waves of new immigrants established the city's speech patterns, modern Pittsburghers are intensely proud of the city's unique vernacular.

The extremely limited written use of "jagoff" by city, via Google Trends.

That self-awareness has trickled down to ad agencies and graphic tee entrepreneurs. To use Pittsburghese in 2014 is to project authenticity. Former Pittsburgh City Paper writer Chris Potter wrote poignantly about the matter in 2012, right after the Post-Gazette announced they'd no longer be using the J-word:

For a long time I thought that, like a lot of things Pittsburgh, it had a nice way of flattening pretension. But ever since last winter, when I saw a billboard boasting "Yinzers save with Nationwide insurance," I've wondered whether our fixation on the local dialogue is itself a pretense. How long, after all, can we boast about our "authenticity" before we start sounding inauthentic?

Perhaps Pittsburghese needs its own dictionary, but its most famous (and satisfying) word hardly deserves a spot in a Merriam-Webster. Its popularity still limited to Western Pennsylvania, an associate editor for the company told the Post-Gazette that widespread usagenot petition signatures—is what puts a new word in their dictionary.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. A rendering of Quayside, the waterfront development now being planned for Toronto.
    Solutions

    A Big Master Plan for Google's Growing Smart City

    Google sibling company Sidewalk Labs has revealed its master plan for the controversial Quayside waterfront development—and it’s a lot bigger.

  2. a photo of commuters on Oakland's Bay Bridge.
    Transportation

    Can Waze Convince Commuters to Carpool Again?

    Google’s wayfinding company wants to help drivers and riders find each other on its navigation app—and ease traffic congestion along the way.

  3. Anthony Bourdain in 2001, when he was still the chef-owner of Les Halles in New York City.
    Life

    Urbanists Could Learn a Lot From Anthony Bourdain

    The work of the acclaimed chef and writer, who has died at 61, provides a model for a truly inclusive urbanism based on the creativity of all human beings.

  4. Life

    McDonald's Restaurants Are America's Ultimate 'Third Places'

    Americans have fewer and fewer spaces to gather. That’s where nuggets come in.

  5. Maps

    The Squirrel Census Answers a Question You Weren’t Asking

    How many squirrels live in New York City's Central Park? Finding the answer was surprisingly complicated.

×