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The Effortless, Midwestern Elegance of “Jagoff”

Pittsburgh may have invented the term, but Chicago perfected it. The etymology of an insult:

Former mayor Rahm Emanuel was among the 75 featured in Lumpen’s 2015 “Field Guide to Chicago Jagoffs.”   Photo: Timothy A. Clary / AFP via Getty Images

I was about to cross the street, at Pratt and Greenview, when some dude in a foreign car whizzed around the corner without braking.

“Hey, jagoff!” I shouted. “You just blew through a stop sign.”

That’s right, I threw the j-word at him. It’s become my go-to jibe. It should become yours, too. Why? Because there are a lot of jagoffs out there, and they need to be called on it.

“Jagoff” is the perfect insult — it’s full of hard, aggressive consonants and sounds like a synonym for self-stimulation, but its actual origin is much more innocent. Jagoff is derived from the Scots-Irish word “jag,” which means “thorn” or “to be pricked.” Which is exactly what a jagoff is: a thorn in your side, a person who won’t stop needling you. It’s no more offensive than “jerk” or “dunderhead.”

The word also has a deep history in Chicago. In the 1960s, an Edgewater street gang changed its name from the Thorndale Jarvis Organization to the Thorndale Jagoffs after reading a newspaper article in which a police officer called them “a bunch of jagoffs.” (See, you can print “jagoff” in the paper.) The TJOs caused mayhem at Senn High School in the early 1970s when black students belonging to the Black P. Stone Nation were bused there from the South Side. All those Jagoffs ended up going to prison, where some of them formed white supremacist gangs behind bars.

A few years ago, the Chicago-based magazine Lumpen published a special issue entitled “A Field Guide to Chicago Jagoffs.” The list included Saul Bellow, the State Street Preacher, and former mayor Rahm Emanuel, who ran as a jagoff, was elected as a jagoff, served as a jagoff, and is now getting paid by ABC News to act as its House Jagoff, throwing wet blankets on liberal aspirations such as universal health care. As Lumpen predicted, “It’s not enough for Rahm to be the Biggest Jagoff in Chicago. He wants to be the Biggest Jagoff on the Planet.”

Of course, being the Biggest Jagoff in Chicago may make you the Biggest Jagoff on the Planet. Not that many cities have jagoffs. As far as I know, the word is only used in Chicago and in Pittsburgh, two cities with blue-collar, steel-making roots. “Jagoff” originated in Pittsburgh, whose speech has Scots-Irish roots, and is a cornerstone of the abrasive dialect known as Pittsburghese or Yinzer.

The Pittsburgh band The Jaggerz, famous for the song “The Rapper,” took their name from the word at jagoff’s root. And Pittsburghers display the word on all sorts of tchotchkes: towels, mugs, t-shirts. When I visited Pittsburgh, I bought an oval sticker that read “JAG OFF” and affixed it to my computer, where it remained until I accidentally tore it off, like the jagoff that I am.

In Pittsburgh, “quit jaggin’ around,” means “quit fooling around.” That’s a little more innocent than Chicago’s usage of the verb form. Here, “you’re jaggin’ me” means “you’re screwing me over.”

During the 2016 presidential campaign, Pittsburgh native Mark Cuban made national news when he asked a crowd at a Hillary Clinton rally in his hometown, “Is there any bigger jagoff in the world than Donald Trump?” (To be fair, Cuban, a self-made billionaire and admirer of Ayn Rand, is kind of a jagoff himself.)

Pittsburgh mayor Bill Peduto — along with the Pittsburgh website yajagoff.com — lobbied the Oxford English Dictionary to include “jagoff.” The dictionary did so, identifying it as a word used chiefly in western Pennsylvania, and deriving “from jackoff, perhaps influenced by jag.” That doesn’t seem quite right, because a jackoff abuses himself, while a jagoff abuses you. Even if the words are related, grafting “jag” onto the suffix changes the meaning.

The fourth estate, unfortunately, isn’t always so keen on the term, or at the very least doesn’t seem to understand its nuance. In 2012, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette editor David Shribman – a Massachusetts native, or, as we’d say, a total jagoff – attracted local ridicule when he banned “jagoff” from his newspaper, despite being fully aware of its non-obscene provenance. Three years later, the late Sun-Times critic Andrew Patner objected to hearing “jagoff” on WBEZ; in response, this 2015 Chicago Reader column concluded the word is “a processed obscenity like friggin,” and therefore an attempt to skate around radio, TV, and print censorship.

I disagree. I submit that “jagoff” has its own distinct etymology. Far from being a word which attempts to conceal an obscenity, it’s a word which enables users to avoid an obscenity.

So, the next time you’re tempted to use a word that begins with a B, a C, or an F, say “jagoff” instead. If anyone complains about your language — well, in Chicago, we have a word for people like that.

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