On Jagoffs

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By Bill Savage, Paul Durica, and Ed Marzewski

Adapted from the introduction to the Lumpen Field Guide to Chicago Jagoffs

“Assholes” is such an . . . LA term. In Chicago, we have jagoffs. What the word actually meant was our starting point. We thought, like most people who bother to think about such things did, that “jagoff” was a Chicago variant pronunciation of a term for male masturbation. “Jerk off” or “jack off” becomes “jagoff,” the same way “fuck” becomes “fugg.” Yet the word was used in Chicago as a noun, not just a verb—a noun for a particular sort of really annoying person.

We thought that the term was unique to Chicago, since we had never encountered it elsewhere, either in person or in writing. There was no sign of it in the Oxford English Dictionary, or various lexicons of American slang.

We were soon informed, though—thanks to the Internet!—that it was a common Pittsburgh term: common, and rude, enough that a newspaper editor there wanted to ban it from the paper’s pages. And popular/populist enough that the Mayor of Pittsburgh campaigned to have it included in dictionaries.

This Pittsburgh claim, we rashly theorized, might suggest an Eastern European linguistic origin, “jag” sounding like a Slavic verb of some kind, “jagov” perhaps meaning a person who . . . annoyed you. Pittsburgh and Chicago both having been settled in no small part by Slavic immigrants.

That turned out not to be the case: as Carnegie-Mellon professor Barbara Johnstone points out, the term originates in northern England, where “the verb ‘to jag’ means to prick or poke.’”

“Jagoff,” it turns out, comes from the same root as “jagged,” a term for something that pokes or annoys.

The Dictionary of American Regional English identifies several usages associated with the Pittsburgh region:

A reckless person, one who takes foolish chances; A very awkward, clumsy person; A dull and stupid person.

Or

Uncomplimentary words with no definite meaning—just used when you want to show that you don’t think much of a person: “Don’t invite him. He’s a ________.

It’s this last definition that most seems to jibe with how the term is used in Chicago.

Casey Cora, then of DNAinfo Chicago, wrote a story about the planned Guide, including our incorrect—yet highly plausible!—speculation about Slavic origins for the term. This initial publicity led to further media attention.

An appearance on WBEZ, Chicago’s local public radio station, caused a bit of a stir, as some folks with delicate sensibilities were deeply offended that we would say “jagoff” on the radio, even as we explained that it did not mean anything sexual. It seems that you cannot talk about what words really mean, as opposed to what people think they mean, without Western Civilization crashing down. It’s as though you cannot wake up when the cock crows anymore, since that word also has a rude sexual meaning. As any aficionado of the New York Times crossword can tell you, “small wrens” are also called tits, but we cannot mention such things!

Well, when people are offended by serious attempts to explore the truth of what words actually mean, that’s their problem, not ours.

Back to Chicago v. Pittsburgh: we could get into a throw-down with Pittsburghers over ownership of “jagoff,” but it’s probably better to acknowledge that many Rust Belt towns have parallel linguistic heritages, and we all should team up against Houston, Phoenix, and Tampa-St. Petersburg.

In Chicagoese, we argue that the term “jagoff” has a relatively precise meaning. It’s not a person who is just annoying in a particular situation, or who does one annoying thing. The jagoff stands distinct from other Chicago sorts of urban loser, though the Venn Diagram of Loserhood has many overlapping categories. The Mope, the Jamoke, the Douchebag, the Bust-out, the Bro: any person in each of these might veer into jagoffery at their worst moments. But let’s give them credit: Mopes and Jamokes and Douchebags and Bust-outs and Bros sometimes deal with their fellow citizens in clean and honest (if Loserish) ways. Not the Jagoff. The Jagoff always acts as though no one else exists, or if they do exist, they don’t matter except for how they may gratify the Jagoff.

The pure Jagoff is gonna be who he (or she) is, regardless of anyone or anything else around them, regardless of common decency or common sense. Jagoff is an essential subject position, immutable, and a Jagoff’s jagoffery will continue regardless of what anyone around them says or does. Jagoffs are like Louis XIV of France, the Sun King, around whom everyone revolved. One common theme in the entries below will show that Jagoffs transform public space into private space, as they act like no one else exists or matters.

So we set out to call out the jagoffs of Chicago, the people who annoy everyone around them, even as they advance to high political office, attain local or national celebrity.

Lots of names popped to mind, and lots of sorts of jagoffs, when we began to think about this. Most, our readers will note, are sort of canonical: White Men, and lots of Dead White Men. Well, sorry if we’re not diverse enough: but this is satire as much as scholarship, and satire should always punch up.

But we didn’t want this to be all about us. What kind of jagoff presumes to speak for the whole city?

So we opened this Guide up to anyone who was listening on the radio or lurking on the Internet. A twitter account and an email account solicited submissions, and many Chicagoans contributed their ideas for who, or what, was a jagoff. Some didn’t make the cut; frankly, people who don’t clean up after their dogs, or people who go slow in the left lane of highways aren’t just Chicago, and aren’t necessarily jagoffs. The writing styles and approaches vary greatly, as we’re not like those Chicago Manual of Style jagoffs who try to make everything uniform.

We will be running entries from the Field Guide on this website, one a week, until we run out, and then we’ll just make up some more. If you have a jagoff you’d like to submit, email Edmar of lumpen at (edmarlumpen at gmail.com)

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