[Ads-l] janky (1989)

Ben Zimmer bgzimmer at GMAIL.COM
Thu Sep 5 16:42:35 EDT 2019


OED3 has an entry for "janky" (added in 2009) with the meaning "of poor
quality, bad; untrustworthy, suspicious." The earliest cite given is from a
1993 Usenet post, and the etymological note says: "Probably representing a
regional, affected, or colloquial pronunciation of _junky_ adj. Compare
later _jank_ adj., and perhaps also _stank_ adj.2, _stanky_ adj."

Green's Dictionary of Slang also takes it back to 1993, in lyrics to a song
by The Roots:
https://greensdictofslang.com/entry/na7ddza

More examples from rap lyrics, from 1993 on, can be found on The Right
Rhymes:
https://therightrhymes.com/janky/

GDoS relates "janky" to a noun "jankie" defined as "bad luck." That squares
with Clarence Major's 1994 book "Juba to Jive," where "janky" is listed as
a noun meaning "bad luck," which Major surmises is derived from a variant
of "jinxed."

I found a 1989 example that also relates "janky" to bad luck, from the
movie "Harlem Nights." In an early scene, Richard Pryor's character Sugar
Ray is running a dice game, and a toothless gambler (played by Ji-Tu
Cumbuka) flips out about a boy in the room bringing him bad luck. The boy
(Quick Brown, played by Desi Arnez Hines II -- Eddie Murphy plays him when
he grows up) ends up shooting the gambler, but before that happens, the
gambler threatens to knife him by saying:

"I'll definitely stick this little janky-ass bad-luck motherfucker standing
here."
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JBOq0nY1rQE (at around 1:30)

The scene in the movie is set in 1918, so the use of the word is a tad
anachronistic, but it's useful for reconstructing how "janky" emerged in
African American slang by the late '80s. (Eddie Murphy wrote the screenplay
for "Harlem Nights," but I don't know if it was in the original script or
improvised on the spot by Cumbuka.)

--bgz

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The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org


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