jerk / jerkwater / jerk-off / jerky

Jerk is an old word, dating to the sixteenth century. The word echoes the sound made by a short, sharp movement. The original sense is that of a blow or stroke of a whip. From Miles Coverdale’s 1550 A Spyrytuall and Moost Precious Perle:

Than he beateth and gierketh vs a little with a rod.

It’s related to yerk or yark, also meaning to strike with a lash, which is now only found in Scots and a few other English dialects, but once once more widespread. From Stephen Hawes 1509 The Pastime of Pleasure:

And in her hande a strong knotted whippe; At every yarke she made hym for to skyppe.

The standard sense of jerk, meaning a rapid tug or movement, is fairly unremarkable, but it has several modern, slang usages that are interesting.

A soda jerk is someone who makes a living by jerking, or pulling, sodas at a lunch counter, the name coming from the jerking motion required to open a tap. From the Colorado Springs Gazette of 31 July 1910:

Over the spring, Mr. Heistand proceeded to build a real up-to-date soda fountain, with all the nickled appliances so dear to the heart of the drug store “soda-jerk.”

And even older is soda jerker. From the Trenton Times, 4 Sep 1889:

When the girls will stop flirting. [...]
When the streets will be kept clean.
When the local fishermen will stop lying. [...]
When soda jerkers will give a full gla[ss] for a nickel.

To jerk off is to masturbate, again from the motion required. The verb is attested to in Farmer and Henley’s Slang and Its Analogues in 1906.

A jerkwater train was originally a small locomotive or stagecoach that serviced branch lines. Its small boiler requiring frequent filling by train crews which would have to dismount, form a bucket brigade, and jerk water from a river to feed the steam engine or the horses. From the Overland Monthly of March 1869:

..."jerkwater" stages, which had been three or four days making the trip of one hundred and ten miles from Hamilton with passengers for the mines.

By the end of the 19th century, jerkwater was being applied as an adjective meaning rustic, small, or inconsequential. From the Chicago Tribune, 25 July 1897:

John J. Ingalls regards the Swiss Mission as a jerkwater job, and would not take it if it were offered to him.

The most common usage of jerk, meaning a fool or inept person, dates to the early years of the 20th century. Which of the above senses it comes from is uncertain. It may originally have been a reference to a chronic masturbator or it may have been to a resident of a jerkwater town. The earliest clear attestation of this sense is from 1935 in Albin Jay Pollock’s The Underworld Speaks:

Jerk, a boob; chump; a sucker.

Although there is this use as a nickname from 1919 in John Ashton’s F, 63, Being an Account of the Events and Wanderings of that Unit During the Great War:

The night of the St. Mihiel drive “Jerk” Manley rushed in with the words “Say, did you hear about the ork eenikin’ on the jazbo?”

The use of jerk to mean a method of curing meat by cutting it in slices and drying it in the sun is unrelated to the above. The English is a borrowing from the American Spanish and is ultimately from the Quichua ccharqui. From Hans Sloane’s 1707 A Voyage to the Islands Madera, Barbados, Nieves, S. Christophers, and Jamaica:

They are shot,...cut open, the bones taken out, and the flesh gash’d on the inside into the skin, filled with salt, and exposed to the sun, which is called Jirking.

The word jerky, referring to jerked beef, is glossed as early as 1890 in the Century Dictionary.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition; Historical Dictionary of American Slang, ADS-L)

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