Oxford English Dictionary: Pittsburgh’s jagoff crossed ‘threshold of prominence’

“The use we know today is used as an insult of a person,” said Katherine Martin, head of US dictionaries at Oxford University Press in New York.


When the word jagoff was first used in 1931, yinzers wouldn’t have recognized it.

At the time, it meant a petty thief and was two separate words (jag and off).

That definition of jagoff and one that’s a bit more familiar were added this week to the Oxford English Dictionary, which shows the full history of the English language over about a century, said Katherine Martin, head of US dictionaries at Oxford University Press in New York.

OED adds words when they start “crossing a threshold of prominence,” Martin said, adding that jagoff hit OED’s radar in about the last decade. It easily qualified for addition, she said, as the word has frequently appeared for a long period of time. This is how the OED tracked jagoff:

It’s unclear if the first word — meaning a thief — is connected to its next appearance about eight years later in a dictionary of sexual and vulgar words. By that point, it was being compared to jackoff and meant “a man who is presumed to masturbate excessively. Any male disliked because of his idiosyncrasies or unconventional social habits.”

“We don’t know if those are the same word, or if they may represent totally unrelated words,” Martin said.

By 1953, jagoff seems to have just become an insult closer in line with Pittsburghese. (The word didn’t become closely associated with Pittsburgh until the end of the 20th century.)

“That’s something that happens in language. We call it the etymological fallacy, that just because one thing comes from one thing, it always means that,” Martin said.

If you’ve grown up in Pittsburgh using jagoff in a non-sexual way, then the word should be considered non-sexual, she said.

“The use we know today is used as an insult of a person,” Martin said.

John Chamberlin, who is the creator of local blog YaJagoff!, said he thinks jagoff had its moment in the spotlight when Mark Cuban, who is from Mt. Lebanon, was stumping for Hillary Clinton in Pittsburgh in July.

“Is there any bigger jagoff in the world than Donald Trump?” Cuban said.

“All of the national [media], The LA Times, The New York Times, they were all searching for a definition and wondering if they could use it: ‘Is it a swear word or not?’ ” said Chamberlin, 54, of Kennedy Township. (Both publications used the word jagoff at the time. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, which had previously banned the word, changed course today.)

In Chamberlin’s estimation, it is not a swear word.

YaJagoff! responded to Cuban’s s/o by defining it in three ways:

1.  Term of endearment; expressing appreciation to someone, with a smile on your face and a hug, like when you haven’t seen them for years and you spy them standing in a corner at the family reunion in an Jack Ham shirt, you say, “Heeeey! How’ve ya been, Ya Jagoff?”
2.  Expressing being startled or punked, half chuckling you say, “You scared the %$# outta me, Ya Jagoff!”
3.  And then there’s the version, that’s posted on our blog … venting about someone that has been a jerk, with a scowl on your face, “Learn to use a turn signal, Ya Jagoff!” Or, as Mark Cuban used it, “Donald Trump is a Jagoff!”

The blog also petitioned to have the word added to the Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary in 2014 as a fundraiser for the Pittsburgh Emergency Medicine Foundation. Eyetique donated a dollar for each of the nearly 2,000 people from across the country who signed the petition, Chamberlin said.

The Oxford English Dictionary is updating its numerous-volume print edition, but publishes updated entries to its website quarterly. Jagoff made it in this round, with other words including “gender-fluid” and “YOLO.

Another dictionary owned by Oxford University Press, The New Oxford American Dictionary, added jagoff to its website in the last year.

Oxford Living Dictionaries

That dictionary aims to reflect how words are used today. (Yinzer also appears in this online version, though it’s not in the printed New Oxford American Dictionary or the Oxford English Dictionary.) Jagoff currently isn’t in either dictionary’s printed edition.

The new OED is expected to be about 20 volumes released no sooner than 2030, Martin said. (Its second edition came out in 1989 in print and on CD.)