The word may be unfamiliar to you – it was to me, until a few weeks ago – but you undoubtedly know a jabroni or two. We all do. He – it’s always a he – isn’t mean enough to be called a jerk. He’s annoying, but not as obnoxious as a douchebag. He’s not as contemptible as an asshole, an epithet Geoffrey Nunberg defines, in his 2012 book The Ascent of the A-Word, as having at its heart “a culpable obtuseness—about one’s own importance, about the needs of others and the way one is perceived by them.” *
To call someone a jabroni, by contrast, is to mock rather than to condemn. The very sound of jabroni – a coined word with an Italianate flair – evokes ridiculousness and loserdom. Unlike jerk, asshole, and douchebag, the word doesn’t originate in obscenity; it comes instead from the colorful, carnival-influenced world of professional wrestling.
Wrestler-turned-actor Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, credited with popularizing “jabroni.”
In one form or another, jabroni has been in circulation in the U.S. for almost a century. But its current sense comes from the wrestling term jobber, a wrestler whose role is to be routinely defeated by “by main eventers, mid-carders, or low-carders” (Wikipedia). Jobber (and the related verb to job, meaning to do one’s job by losing) has been in use since the 1950; the jabroni sense and spelling owe their popularity to Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who was active in wrestling from the mid-1990s to the early 2000s. In a 2015 interview with Esquire, Johnson recalled how jabroni was used by an Iranian-born wrestling champion known as Iron Sheik (born Hossein Khosrow Ali Vaziri), who won the WWF World Heavyweight Championship in 1983:
When I was a kid, it was an inside term that guys would use. When wrestlers wanted to have a private conversation when fans were present, they would start talking carny because they used to wrestle in carnivals. I thought it was so cool. Jabroni was a word that was always used in the derogatory sense. Oh, this jabroni, that jabroni. But the Iron Sheik was famous for saying the word constantly backstage. Jabroni, jabroni, jabroni. Around 1998, I thought, Why can't I say it on TV? So I started saying it publicly, but the Iron Sheik was known for it.
Long before there was jabroni, though, there was jiboney (spelled in various ways), whose origin, according to the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, is “uncertain” but may be derived from Milanese giambone, which means “hambone.” This jiboney meant “a stupid, foolish, or obnoxious person” or simply “a man.” The earliest citation in HDAS is in a 1921 issue of Variety, the daily newspaper of show business: “The giboney comes back with, ‘Sorry, this is a five-story buildin’ and we ain’t got no sixth floor’.” HDAS also has an entry for jambone, an adjective meaning “contemptible, worthless” (earliest citation: the 1988 film Twice Dead), and another for jamoke (in the late 19th century a blend of Java and Mocha, two types of coffee bean; by World War I “a stupid, objectionable, or inconsequential fellow” – not far from jabroni, in other words).
Jabroni is useful when you want to indicate that someone is both deplorable and faintly absurd. For example, you could call Martin Shkreli – the convicted felon who ran the pharmaceutical company that jacked up prices on an antiparasitic drug by a factor of 56 – a douchebag or an asshole, and no one would argue. But to begin a story about him with “As much as this jabroni doesn’t deserve any more press…” seems more pleasingly precise.
Or consider the two ex-Googlers who had the bright idea to disrupt bodegas – the convenience stores, often run by recent immigrants, that are a fixture of New York City life – with an app-powered five-foot-wide pantry box called, with unblushing chutzpah, Bodega.
As Danielle Tcholakian put it in LongReads: “These jabronis even have the audacity to make their logo a cat, a tribute to the omnipresent bodega cats they’re seeking to make homeless.”
I call that a job well done.
* Your taxonomy may vary.