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Q From Haleigh Morgan: At breakfast today my mother-in-law referred (semi-jokingly) to her vehicle as a jitney. She explained that her late father always used it. I had never heard it before despite having been raised in the southern or southwestern region of the US, from where it is said to originate. Do you know the history of this word and how it evolved?

A The story begins near the end of the nineteenth century. Jitney (or gitney) was then a slang term for five cents (or perhaps for a nickel coin, it’s hard to tell). The earliest example researchers have so far found is in an exchange between a pair of tramps:

  “Can’t spare de change. Me granmaw died in Sout’ Afriky an’ I need dis to float me over ter de fun’ral.”
  “Quit yer kiddin’ an’ let me have a jitney.”

The Morning Herald (Lexington, Kentucky), 16 Dec. 1899.

Around 1914 a transport sense began to appear, at first in forms such as jitney bus and jitney car, soon abbreviated to jitney for the vehicle. In the early days it was a private car, running a service that was a cross between a bus and a taxi. It often took the same route as a bus or streetcar but was flexible about where you could get on and off. Similar systems exist today in South American, African and Asian countries under many names. The cars were called jitneys because the fare for any length of journey was five cents. The system immediately became hugely popular:

Have you ridden in a “jitney bus”? You get a $2.50 taxi journey for 5 cents. ... The idea, so far as anybody can discover, originated in Los Angeles. Somebody with a Ford went broke. He began competing with the street cars. Now there are 600 “jitney buses” in Los Angeles, doing an estimated business of $1,250,000 a year. ... San Diego and San Francisco liked the “jitney bus” notion. It swept up the Coast. Portland has them. So has Tacoma. Little Everett has gone “jitney bus” mad. It has 60 or more, and nobody rides on the street cars any more.

Seattle Star, 1 Jan. 1915.

Jitneys were common for a decade or more but increasing regulation and battles with streetcar and bus companies meant that they slowly died out; by the 1930s they were rare. The term jitney largely went with them, although it never completely vanished from the language and jitney buses still ply in a few communities in the US. One place it survived was in the name of Jitney Jungle supermarkets, founded in 1919, whose founders borrowed it in part as a reference to the “nickel on a quarter” that the customer would save from patronising their new-fangled self-service stores.

Another usage, rather a curious one, is for a small can for fruit or a tin of sardines, which is very poorly recorded in the standard works. There are references in the 1920s to the name being applied to the eight-ounce size of a can of fruit and others today for a six-ounce size of sardine tin. We may guess that its name derives from the small value of the jitney coin.

Where jitney comes from is a puzzle and dictionaries today are still likely to cautiously say “origin unknown”. Speculation about its origin was widespread almost from the moment that jitneys hit the street. It was argued that it was a Russian word for a small coin that had been brought to America by Jewish immigrants, that it came from Yiddish slang or that it derived from an English village of that name south of London.

There are strong hints in early sources, including the first known example, that the word appeared first in the south-eastern United States among Creole-speaking African Americans. If so, the most likely source that specialists have put forward is a Louisiana French term jetnée, which is said to derive from French jeton, a token.

This remains a supposition, albeit a plausible one. The experts remain understandably cautious.

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