The jerk store called; they haven't carried that model since 1964
July 17, 2011 8:58 PM   Subscribe

What did "jerk" mean in 1964?

I. Summary and tldr
I recently read a 50 year old self-help/psychology book that attempts to explain a character type by summarizing it with the word "Jerk". But its usage of the word "jerk" is not today's usage.

Today the word means something like "asshole", "unkind person", "meanie".

In 1964, the word appears to have meant some convoluted amalgamation of "suck-up", "person with a hidden agenda", "clod", and "prig". I'm struggling to see how those very divergent concepts intersect coherently.

If you were alive in 1964 -- or if you have a good grasp of how people conceptualized one another then -- or if you can detect some conceptual overlap between these categories of unlikeable person that I am missing -- what character archetype, exactly, would "Jerk" have conveyed to a contemporary reader? If in the atomic age I asked a 14-year-old what a jerk was like, what kind of person would he have described?

II. Context
"Games People Play" is a fifty-year-old book that manages to alternate between being laughable and being insightful. Its first segment asserts that most human social choices can be conceptualized as "Parental", "Adult" (the ideal), or "Childish". Its second segment is a deconstruction of various "game" interactions that these three identities may engage in. ("Games" are the author's coinage for the sorts of quasi-conversation where each participant is simply trying to demonstrate some point about his own identity, and sticks it out even though entirely aware what's going on.) Its third segment (starting in chapter 14, for those of you with access to it) discusses the sorts of people most prone to "game" playing, and here's where I lack the cultural context to parse what the author is talking about.

a. "Games are played with the greatest conviction by two classes. . . the Sulks and the Jerks or Squares. The Sulk is [someone prone to Childishness. . .] A Jerk is someone who is overly sensitive to Parental influences."

b. "his Adult data processing and his Child's spontaneity are likely to be interfered with at critical moments, resulting in inappropriate or clumsy behavior."

c. "In extreme cases the Jerk merges with the Toady, the Show-off, and the Cling."

d. A dialogue in which a character speaks candidly and openly is called "Jerk-free". (Meanwhile, "rationalizations or pleas" are discussed as the essence of being a "Sulk".)

e. "The man whose chief preoccupation is being on time is [a Jerk]. . . [his] chief concern is how it will look to the boss. . . his game is 'Look How Hard I've Tried'"

f. A self-actualized, autonomous person is someone who has cast aside, not only the fetters of culture and of others' expectations, but also "the easy indulgences and rewards of being a Sulk or a Jerk".
posted by foursentences to Writing & Language (32 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
My take on that from the 60's, was maybe just a sort of person who was a jerk. Think Eddie Haskell. But mostly, in pop culture, it was a dance. Sidebar, if you are asking people who were around in 64 their opinion, you'll want to rethink the font size toward the end.
posted by timsteil at 9:10 PM on July 17, 2011

I was in elementary school in the 1960s. It meant then what it means now.
posted by Wordwoman at 9:15 PM on July 17, 2011 [4 favorites]

I was not around then. But I present the work of people who were. Which seems to support your book's position.
posted by gjc at 9:22 PM on July 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

making that last part "small" was a pain, don't do that!

I was not only "alive" back in that day, but studied and was certified in transactional analysis by Eric Berne, (where your quotes came from)..

"jerk" meant then what "jerk" means now.... someone who is generally an asshole in how they relate to other individuals.

And, that being said, that book you refer to is not that laughable if you take the time to consider it.
posted by HuronBob at 9:28 PM on July 17, 2011 [4 favorites]

I was in the 4th grade in 1963/64 and specifically remember telling Jeff McCall he was a jerk before I popped him in the mouth for telling JFK jokes the day he was killed. I hope that helps you understand what jerk meant then.
posted by buggzzee23 at 9:33 PM on July 17, 2011 [18 favorites]

No change between then and now.

In 1964, the word appears to have meant some convoluted amalgamation of "suck-up", "person with a hidden agenda", "clod", and "prig". I'm struggling to see how those very divergent concepts intersect coherently.

I don't see your evidence for the quoted proposition.
posted by JimN2TAW at 9:46 PM on July 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

Soda jerk was a thing.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 9:56 PM on July 17, 2011

I am bad at metafilter links, sorry... soda jerk
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 9:57 PM on July 17, 2011

The author of your book was born in Quebec. Is this a translation? That might account for the discrepancy. I recently read a translation of a theater book from 1970s Brazil (by way of France) that used "joker" in a way completely alien to its modern English usage. So, where was this book published? Was it originally published in English? It's entirely possible that "jerk" meant something different to a French Canadian.
posted by Jeff Howard at 10:03 PM on July 17, 2011

Best answer: I remember reading that book in the seventies and wondering about the author's usage of "jerk", as it seemed unusual to me at the time. I decided he needed to come up with labels for the concepts in his book, and "jerk" was what he picked for one concept. Thus, he was not using "jerk" in the usual sense, he was redefining it for his own purposes, giving it a special meaning in the context of "Games People Play."
posted by exphysicist345 at 10:17 PM on July 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Sorry to get all librarian-y on you, but I was curious and looked up jerk in the Oxford English Dictionary. Jerk has many meanings, but this one, which goes back to 1935, is the relevant one:

5. slang (orig. U.S.). Someone of little or no account; a fool, a stupid person

And here are a couple of their examples (I don't want to copy them all over):
1935 A. J. Pollock Underworld Speaks 63/2 Jerk, a boob; chump; a sucker.

1950 E. Hemingway Across River xxxiii. 208 The brown-nosers‥and all the jerks.

1958 Listener 15 May 802/1 If‥the sponsors get eight letters saying that their comedian is an idiot, or a foul-mouthed jerk, they're terrified.

The OED connects this use of jerk to the word "jerkwater."
posted by bluedaisy at 11:55 PM on July 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

I was in third grade in 1964: I'd say the slang term,the insult, was the same as it is now.

Re: the dance called the Jerk or a soda jerk: in both cases, the term is not derived from the slang insult, but from the physical motion of pulling or jerking something --- a soda jerk pulled (jerked) various handles similarly to a bar's draft-beer. The dance was a series of repetitive, sudden (jerky) motions.
posted by easily confused at 4:22 AM on July 18, 2011

This is a bit earlier (late '50s) but FWIW:

Dear kindly social worker,
They say go earn a buck.
Like be a soda jerker,
Which means like be a schumck.
It's not I'm anti-social,
I'm only anti-work.
Gloryosky! That's why I'm a jerk!

From Officer Krupke, West Side Story.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 4:23 AM on July 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: My parents had that book when it came out, and I remember skimming through it and thinking that the author was trying too hard to be cool, and that he didn't really know what a "jerk" was. Of course, I was in elementary school, so my opinion about his relative coolness may not have been valid; but a jerk meant the same thing then that it does now.
posted by MexicanYenta at 4:52 AM on July 18, 2011

I was in high school 1964. Jerk, aside from sodas and dancing, meant then what it means now.
posted by Dolley at 6:18 AM on July 18, 2011

Best answer: HuronBob has a good point. Jerk does seem more common back then, but reading your example I think you could do the same thing with "asshole" today, you have the strict asshole usage, but then you have more wide range of asshole that is more defined by the context, going from temporary incompetence to slightly devious all the way to raging heartless sociopath.
posted by yeahyeahyeahwhoo at 6:27 AM on July 18, 2011

Jeff Howard: The author of your book was born in Quebec. Is this a translation?

A nice observation but probably a red herring. You can see the author speaking in YouTube clips on his website. There's no apparent trace of French in his accent. He seems to be an anglophone.
posted by mhum at 7:14 AM on July 18, 2011

This may be reaching but I find in many cultures... anything that references sexual play or a body part is usually turned into something insulting. "Jerk", to me, sounds like one of them.
posted by InterestedInKnowing at 7:58 AM on July 18, 2011

I was also in High school in 1964, and I think the author is applying a special definition to the word that's only useful within his equally-special framework.

I also do not think "jerk" is a synonym for "asshole." I'm reminded of Steve Allen guest-hosting The Tonight Show and tellin Steve Martin, "You kind of specialize in being a jerk, don't you?" Martin subsequently made a movie called The Jerk. He's not really an asshole in that movie, just massively clueless and inept.

"Soda jerk" is not as derogatory as it now sounds; it's descriptive of the motion used to get soft drinks out of the dispensers in use back then.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 8:06 AM on July 18, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: My experience does not align with the definition in Games People Play (One of those very-popular-book-that-no-one-actually-reads in the mid sixties. The title became a cultural 'meme'. The Firesign Theatre cited it. Joe South wrote a pop song by that title, covered by numerous other artists in the 1960s).

I suspect the author of hijacking a then current slang expression for their own means.

I recall a very important distinction in usage:

A jerk is someone who offends others because they don't know any better.

An asshole is someone who offends others because they don't care whether or not they offend.

Both are rude. The former is rude through ignorance or lack of social graces. The latter is rude through arrogance. The latter is also inconsiderate.

A jerk parks in the handicapped spot because he doesn't have the situational awareness to observe that that handy open parking space right next to the door is marked with a blue and white sign -- just like all the other handicapped spots. Jeez, what a jerk.

An asshole parks in the handicapped spot rationalizing that he's in a hurry, and it's really important to pick up my dry cleaning (or get a Big Gulp or whatever) right now and this won't take long, and besides that, up yers if you don't like it, loser, you don't even have a cool car like mine. Asshole!

In 1964, though, it wouldn't be asshole, it would just be ass or horse's ass or something similar. Everyone was aware of the connection between (US pronunciation) ass::donkey and ass::posterior, but the coarsening of public discourse hadn't advanced so far in 1964 that most people would express it.

Now, of course, everyone just calls anyone else an asshole for any opposition, disagreement, or thwarting their instant gratification.
posted by Herodios at 8:10 AM on July 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

As a point of reference, Spike Jones and the City Slickers recorded "Serenade to a Jerk" in 1945.
posted by 1970s Antihero at 8:21 AM on July 18, 2011

mhum: A nice observation but probably a red herring... There's no apparent trace of French in his accent.

I've known many Francophones who speak English with no accent whatsoever. I've also known a few Anglophones from Montreal who can barely say 'bonjour'. Either way, I'm not sure why you think the suggestion is probably a red herring: it's a plausible (even if ultimately false) explanation of the central issue--namely, the apparent discrepancy in meaning--rather than a diversion away from it.
posted by matlock expressway at 8:28 AM on July 18, 2011

Best answer: the sponsors get eight letters saying that their comedian is an idiot, or a foul-mouthed jerk

Oh yeah, also, in 1964, a jerk tells an off-color (there's a 1964 term), sexist, racist, or anti-semitic joke at an office party -- a joke that would have been okay at the bar, among all the other white guys.

Jerk is also opposite of cool, defined as knowing the right thing to do or say at all times, for which see How to Speak Hip (1959 Del Close and John Brett).

And here's a contemporaneous example of a jerk (nincompoop) doing the jerk (dance): Ian Whitcomb's You Turn Me On.
posted by Herodios at 8:34 AM on July 18, 2011

Best answer: I was in elementary school then, and I too remember usage as being the same as today, but let's face it, personal memories are the next thing to worthless. The only real answers are from reference works, and to follow up on bluedaisy's excellent OED work I'll cite the Historical Dictionary of American Slang (Vol. 2, p. 267), whose only non-soda-related definitions are:

1.a. a contemptible fool; dolt; (broadly) an offensive or worthless person.
[The only citation before the 1935 one quoted in the OED is this from 1919, which doesn't clearly illustrate the meaning but has to be reproduced here for obvious reasons: "The night of the St. Mihiel drive 'Jerk' Manley rushed in with the words 'Say, did you hear about the ork eenikin' on the jazbo?'"—a question I intend to start using with abandon.]
b. a male masturbator—usu. considered vulgar.

In short, Eric Berne seems to have been using it in a bizarre, personal way that should not affect your idea of its meaning in 1964 or at any other time.
posted by languagehat at 8:37 AM on July 18, 2011

Herodios nailed it, but I might add that 'soda jerk' was slang from the 40s and 50s which had become archaic by the end of the 1960s, when soda fountains were becoming rare.
posted by Rash at 9:03 AM on July 18, 2011

I was around in '64 and jerk meant asshole with overtones of clueless worthlessness, pretty much what I understand it to mean today.
posted by fivesavagepalms at 11:08 AM on July 18, 2011

2nding exphysicist345's assertion that Games People Play is a book of catchy titles and the author modified the meaning a bit to that purpose.
posted by jander03 at 11:32 AM on July 18, 2011

Best answer: Try this:

jerk: to pull or twitch
jerk water: to get water for a steam engine
jerk-water: a place to get water for a steam engine
jerk-water: small town far from the sophistication of the big city (cf 'whistle-stop')
jerkwater: adj: from, of, or related to such places
jerk: ? one who hails from a jerkwater?
jerk: ? bumpkin, one who lacks sophistication?
     |          |
     |     does menial job -------> soda jerk
     |     --> to jerk -------------> "spastic", "spazz"
     |                                                    |
     |     --> to jerk ------> "self love"        |
     |                                  |                 |
     |                             maximum vulgarity preferred
     |                                                    |
jerk: any contemptible person <>      |
maximum vulgarity preferred
merges with "asshole"
posted by Herodios at 12:10 PM on July 18, 2011

'Say, did you hear about the ork eenikin' on the jazbo?'

Trouble at mill, one 't flay-rods gone ou' skew on't treadle!
posted by Herodios at 12:12 PM on July 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

Most likely, the squares who wrote those books weren't hepcats so they fudged the lingo.
posted by chairface at 12:17 PM on July 18, 2011

Yes, but what about jerk chicken?
posted by fivesavagepalms at 12:24 PM on July 18, 2011

Jerk chicken is a different word, a back-formation from jerky (dried meat) which in turn is from Quechua charki.
posted by zompist at 1:00 AM on July 21, 2011

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