Mark Byrnes is a senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design and architecture.
Some jagoffs are trying to get Pittsburgh's go-to insult into a real English-language dictionary.
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.
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.
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 usage—not petition signatures—is what puts a new word in their dictionary.