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shameless pleading

Jerkwater.

And we don’t need a library.  We’ve got satellite TV.

Dear Word Detective:  I have heard the term “jerkwater town” and never thought much about it.  I inferred from the context that it was a small place that didn’t amount to much.  I recently encountered this in a book and began to wonder what its origin is.  Do you know? — Jo Ann Chase.

Yes, I am intimately familiar with the phrase “jerkwater town.”  The town nearest to us here in rural Ohio, East Bump, neatly matches the description given in the Journal of Genetic Psychology in 1936: “It was one of those jerkwater towns that have one lawyer, one drug store and no traffic cops.”  The only differences are that East Bump has no lawyer that I know of, and it does employ a police officer to guard against incursions from West Bump, although he only works part-time.  It also boasts a Post Office, two really awful restaurants and a seedy bar sporting, for some bizarre reason, a pirate motif.  Aaarrgh, Matey.

In any case, you inferred correctly about the connotation of “jerkwater.”  Something that is “jerkwater” is considered small, inferior and insignificant, with overtones of provincialism and hickdom.  Although most commonly applied to small, isolated (and thus presumably uncultured) towns, “jerkwater” can also describe anything considered unsophisticated, a “dead end” or “not up to snuff,” from schools (“It won’t be easy for him to get another job if he’s fired … Maybe at some jerkwater college at half what he’s getting now,” 1970) to vaudeville acts (“Vaudeville teams — from the jerkwater acts to specialists,” 1950).

The original logic behind “jerkwater” has long been gone from towns like East Bump, which is a shame.  In the early days of railroads, when the locomotives were steam-powered, the boiler’s supply of water needed to be refilled fairly often.  Large towns and cities had water towers by the tracks, and topping off the tank was simply a matter of pulling under the spigot and hooking up.  In smaller rural towns, however, such amenities were lacking, and a train crew in need of water faced the chore of fetching it by hand from a nearby stream.  As one account explained in 1945, “… train crews, when the water got low, often had to stop by a creek, form a bucket brigade and jerk water from the stream to fill the tender tank.”  “Jerk” in this context refers to the rough, sudden movement of lifting a bucket, often on a rope, from the creek.

In the late 19th century, trains that ran on branch lines through rural districts where such a ritual was routine became known as “jerkwater trains,” and the routes as “jerkwater lines.”  Almost immediately, “jerkwater” came to be a slang synonym for an isolated rural town served by such a line, and by 1897 “jerkwater” had taken on its modern meaning of “provincial, backward and insignificant.”

1 comment to Jerkwater.

  • Carl

    Nice job! The first time the word interested me, but not necessarily the first time I heard it, was when Bruce Willis referred to a town as a “jerkwater” town, in the movie “Last Man Standing”. I liked the directors effort to make the movie’s dialog time appropriate. Naturally I went on a Google quest for a definition, and so far this on is the best.

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