Slang City Mail

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July 19, 2007

Slang of the Week: jitney (adjective phrase)
1. an unlicensed taxi 2. a bus that shuttles between New York City and the Hamptons

After the sticky heat of the city and the sweaty passenger next to her on the jitney, Marian was happy to finally get to Montauk.

Celebrity quote:
Brooklyn deserves the same amenities as . . . Manhattan, and for those who, unlike myself, frequently ‘summer’ at beaches beyond Brooklyn's beautiful shores, the Jitney provides a much-needed service.”

— Brooklyn Borough president Marty Markowitz on this year’s expanded jitney service to Brooklyn

Even if you’ve never been to New York, you may have heard of the Hampton Jitney, because that’s how fictional author Carrie Bradshaw and her friends got to their vacation rental house on the HBO show Sex and the City.

But even if you’re familiar with the word, it might surprise you to learn the history behind it. At the start of the twentieth century, jitney was slang for a nickel. Informal taxis following set routes began to run in New York and elsewhere, charging a nickel fare, so they were given the same name. The Hampton Jitney, now well-known because of the television show, started in in much the same way in 1974 with one van (though probably charging more than a nickel).

Over the years, there have been a lot of ways to talk about the Big Apple’s transportation. For example, according to Irving Lewis Allen, who wrote The City in Slang, the New York subway system was once called the hole and (even less romantic) the electric sewer. As in Chicago, New York’s elevated railways were called the El. Street cars were called rattlers for their noisiness. One particularly interesting fact from Allen’s book: people were starting to call the traffic problems before and after work “rush hour” way back in the 1890s. Allen doesn’t mention whether drivers experienced enough road rage at the time to shoot offending horses that cut them off.

Take a look in our bookstore for books and DVDs on all kinds of slang! This week’s pick: The City in Slang. When I bought this book (which was written in 1993) it had been out of print for a while, but to my surprise it appears to be available again in paperback, so I just put it in the bookstore. I recommend it—it’s a fun read if you like unusual word histories. And if you just like unusual history in general, you’re still guaranteed to find quite a few obscure facts that you can use impress people at cocktail parties!