Was my grandfather the Dawn of Jawn? No, but it was fun to find out

John “Jawn” Nark and his grandson Jason Richard Nark.

All respect to the dead, I used to wish my middle name were Aloysius after Grandpa Jawn and not Richard after my dziadzia. 

I’ll translate, sort of.

Dziadzia is Polish for “grandfather.” I had two of them, but only one, Richard Basiaga, had that nickname. He was a blue-eyed rascal of a man who drank some of his dinners. My first memory is of being in his big Cadillac, getting candy in Camden and later getting greasy at his radiator shop there. When he died, I was just a toddler, and apparently pulled all my hair out in protest because I loved him so much.

Dr. John Aloysius Nark was my other Polish grandfather. He died in 1957 at age 55 in the home office at Kensington and Allegheny Avenues I visit every Christmas Eve. His whole family mined anthracite, and mine probably would have, too, had his brain not taken him to Philly for medical school.

All I know of him is in black and white, stories from people’s memories and stories I’ve made up from those memories. My dad was 8 when his father died. Sensitive family members reminded me that he drank, too, just like my dziadzia.

On Saturday, thanks to a cousin, I learned his nickname here in Philly was “Jawn,” the same ubiquitous noun used in the city to take the place of just about anything. Here’s the pic she sent me. Thanks, Monica.

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Dr. John A. Nark

The nickname appears under a class picture, possibly from medical school between 1925 and 1930. Knowing people here in the city would get a kick out of it, I sent it to some editors and colleagues, and posted it in on Philadelphia’s Reddit page.

For better or worse, it’s the most popular thing I’ve ever posted there.

Some comments were sincere, others as snarky as I expected, and, as usual, many were dubious of the family name. Best I can tell, Grandpa Jawn changed it himself from “Narkiewicz” to “Nark” sometime before college because, well, try to pronounce it. His mother died long after he did and her tombstone on a hill in Shamokin, Pa., still says “Narkiewicz,” so who knows.

When people like to say, “Man, I bet you had it rough in high school,” I say, “No, but my dad might have in 1965.”

Someone on Reddit said the nickname originated in Germany, but the provided link led back to a laughing puppet. Hilarious!

Another said, “Jawn is life” and it’s true, because jawn can be anything, even South Jersey, where I live.

One Redditor commented with some ODB lyrics that may have suggested I was trying to appropriate something. I’m not. I’ve tried to practice saying “jawn” alone in my car or in conversations with my kids, and it just doesn’t work. Forget I even mentioned that.

The first I remember hearing about “jawn” was when my colleague William Bender quoted someone in a 2014 Daily News story about a building collapse. I remember there being some debate about it. Bill won: ” ‘The whole jawn came down,’ said Lewis, who was taken to Temple University Hospital after the collapse.”  (Bill also came up with this headline for this story.)

Emily Guendelsberger wrote about “jawn” in Philadelphia City Paper shortly afterward. She cited Bender’s quote and also interviewed linguist and lexicographer Ben Zimmer, who posited the word jawn could be a variation of New York City’s “the joint.”

Austin, Texas, hosted a “Philly Jawn” event at the South by Southwest festival in 2007, and former Daily News writers Mister Mann Frisby and Damon Williams used jawn regularly before that. One 2002 story about a drug trial in Norristown said “jawns” was a reference to marijuana.

I looked a bit deeper this week and, darn, what a bummer for Grandpa Jawn.

When Grandpa Jawn was just a boy up in coal country, John “Jawn” Coombs was leading the Philadelphia Athletics to a first-place finish in the American League under Connie Mack at Shibe Park. Sportswriters at the time loved writing about Jawn Coombs, and I don’t know what they were talking about. Do you?

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An Inquirer article from 1911 says John “Jawn” Coombs “had the Senators feeding from the palm of his horny hand all the livelong morning, and they never had a smell of a chance.”

Jawn Coombs was described as “husky,” and apparently he hunted bear in Kennebunkport, Maine, where he lived. I almost wish I hadn’t looked any of this up, because that’s just too cool for me. He coached at Duke University after retiring from the mound, and the stadium is named after the jawn.

Someone’s going to name a band “Jawn Coombs” by the weekend, but, hey, why not “Grandpa Jawn”?

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Illustration of John “Jawn” Coombs in 1911

Besides Coombs, the word appeared sparingly in the Inquirer and Daily News in the 20th century. One reference was to “Red Jawn” but when I googled that, I came up with Red Dawn, a great movie that made me sad I didn’t have brothers.

There was a golfer who used the name, too, and there may have been a boxer or a shipment of moonshine called “Rubbery Jawn,” but I can’t understand that headline either: “Rubbery Jawn famed as dealer in upsets.”

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Inquirer article from 1931

Rubbery Jawn’s another great band name, too.

It’s OK if Dr. Nark isn’t the original jawn.

I had to ride out Catholicism till I was 13 so I could grab St. Aloysius for my confirmation name. That meant my name could someday be engraved on the bowie knife I grew up staring at in my dad’s closet. The names “Dr. John A. Nark” and “Robert A. Nark” are etched into the long blade.

My dad gave it to me, framed with “Jason Richard Aloysius Nark” etched beneath his when I finished grad school. My youngest son has an Aloysius in there, because I forgot to give it to my oldest.

We Narks might not be the jawn, but we have a huge knife we pass down to one another as a family heirloom for taking on a strange, hard-to-pronounce name. I’m fairly sure that is the jawn, right?