Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Jay Town

Posted by Elyse Bruce on April 7, 2015

In researching the terms jaywalking and jay driving, Idiomation wondered what the term jay meant, and co research continued.  In our travels, we came across another popular expression of the day:  jay town.

The term was used in a story titled, “Home” that was published in “Good Housekeeping” magazine in the September 1920 edition.  The story was written by Kathleen Norris (16 July 1880 – 18 January 1966) and illustrated by Harry Russell (H.R.) Ballinger (4 September 1892 – 3 July 1993).  It was a story about a woman named Fanny Bromley Lucas and her dear friend Angela Phillips, and takes place over tea.  The story ran the gamut, talking about Arizona, California, Canada and Mexico.

He was my first beau; he’s the only man I’ve ever cared for or ever will.  But, Fanny, when we got home from our honeymoon, he was first with his uncle, and then in real estate with Joe Bonestell.  Nothing satisfied him.  This was a jay town, and the people were webfoots.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE:  Kathleen Norris represented Good Housekeeping at the Democratic convention in 1920.

The Lodi Sentinel of September 26, 1907 republished a news article from the New York Times about the Reverend Robert J. Burdette (30 July 1844 – 19 November 1914) of Pasadena, California.  The former Burlington Hawkeye newspaperman, as he had been known across America, had recently visited his home town of New York City, and was disappointed with what he experienced.  The article was entitled, “When New York Is A Jay Town” and included this in commentary in the first paragraph.

His reflection on his return home is that New York is a “jay town — in August.  There are a few of us, perhaps three and a half millions, who are in town every August, and maybe we are all “jays.”  

And indeed the term jay town was a derogatory term as it appeared in the 1909 edition of “Passing English of the Victorian Era: A Dictionary of Heterodox English, Slang, and Phrase” compiled by British writer, novelist, playwright (and creator of one of the first female detectives in fiction) James Redding Ware (1832 – 1909) and published by G. Routledge & Sons in 1909.  This dictionary identified the term jay town as an Americanism from 1889 that mean something was valueless.  However, it’s an older term than that.  In Volume 8, Number 201 of “Life Magazine” published on November 4, 1886, Alan Dale wrote this about jay towns in a brief article for the magazine.

Between the acts I heard the remark from the lips of a swallow-tailed:  “What do these folks take us for?  If they had tried this on some jay town, it might have been less unpardonable.”  Of course I did not know what a “jay town” was, nor do I know yet, nor shall I ever know, but I felt it was something rightly opprobrious and pleasingly condemnatory.

Idiomation was unable to find an earlier published version of the expression, however, the term was well enough known to be published in a national magazine (even though it was in quotation marks) and that means the term was one that, while unfamiliar to some, was familiar to many.  The expression is therefore tagged to at least 1880, and most likely dates back considerably earlier.

Research for the term jay continues.  Tune in again on Thursday to see what else Idiomation has uncovered.

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One Response to “Jay Town”

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