• jerkwater •
jêrk-wah-dêr • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Adjective
Meaning: 1. Rinky-dink, backwater, one-horse, whistle-stop, hick (town). 2. Contemptibly trivial, insignificant, piddling, paltry, negligibly tiny.
Notes: Today we have a pure Americanism, wrought from steam-engine lore. It is an absolute lexical orphan; no one seems ever to have even tried jerkwatery for an adjective.
In Play: Today's Good Word is most often used in reference to isolated small towns: "When three houses in the jerkwater town blew up, the property values went up." However, it is occasionally used in the second sense above, usually in reference to things you might find in jerkwater towns: "Without a college degree, Hendricks bounced from one jerkwater job to another."
Word History: Back in the days of steam engines, when trains stopped for water in a town too small to have a station crew like large cities, the engine was positioned by a water tower and the boilerman swung out a long spigot arm over the water tender and "jerked" the chain to release the water. This gave rise to a 19th-century railroad slang 'jerkwater town'. No one knows how jerk got into English, but we know all about water. It is an authentic English word, passed down through Proto-Germanic from PIE wed-/wod- "water, wet", source also of English wet and wash, German Wasser, and Greek hydor. Latin used a PIE word for "river" for its aqua "water", which it passed down to all Romance languages, such as French eau, Portuguese água, Spanish agua, and Italian acqua. (Let's all join in a great big 'thank-you' for Susan Maynard, who found today's Good Word with the fascinating American origin and shared it with us.)
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