9

According to Merriam-Webster, jitney is slang for nickel:

Jitneys weren't worth a dime—just a nickel. In the early 1900s, jitney was slang for "nickel," but it wasn't long before the term was applied to a new mode of public transportation that only cost a nickel.

It also says the etymology is unknown. Are there any theories as to the origin of jitney?

5

According to Etymonline jitney meaning small coin is probably from New Orleans French jeton (coin-sized metal disk):

  • American English, from gitney (n.), said in a 1903 newspaper article to be a St. Louis slang for any small coin, especially "a nickel," (the buses' fare typically was a nickel), the coin name perhaps via New Orleans from French jeton "coin-sized metal disk, slug, counter" (see jetton).

World Wide Words suggests that its meaning for nickel coin is from the late 19th century:

  • The story begins near the end of the nineteenth century. Jitney (or gitney) was then a slang term for five cents (or perhaps for a nickel coin, it’s hard to tell). The earliest example researchers have so far found is in an exchange between a pair of tramps:
    • Can’t spare de change. Me granmaw died in Sout’ Afriky an’ I need dis to float me over ter de fun’ral.” “Quit yer kiddin’ an’ let me have a jitney.”

From: The Morning Herald (Lexington, Kentucky), 16 Dec. 1899.

Its usage referring to vehicles appears to be at least a decade later as suggested by Wordorigins.com.

The original meaning of jitney was ‘a five-cent piece, a nickel:

  • 1903 Cincinnati Enquirer 2 May 11/5 [In St. Louis] a ‘crown guy’ is a policeman, a ‘gitney’ is a nickel, and ‘mug’s landing’ is the Union Station.

  • It was then used in phrases (1914, earliest cite in OED) such as jitney bus, a cheap bus ride and thence to anything of low cost, ("An omnibus or other motor vehicle which carries passengers for a fare, orig. five cents. So, on account of the low fare or the poor quality of these buses, used attrib. to denote anything cheap, improvised, or ramshackle.") including it would seem lunches, although OED doesn’t have a specific cite for that.

4

From World Wide Words article on the word Jitney:

There are strong hints in early sources, including the first known example, that the word appeared first in the south-eastern United States among Creole-speaking African Americans. If so, the most likely source that specialists have put forward is a Louisiana French term jetnée, which is said to derive from French jeton, a token.

This remains a supposition, albeit a plausible one. The experts remain understandably cautious.

Additionally, there is this citation:

The following newly-reported discovery appears to confirm such an origin by giving--in an African-American newspaper in 1898--a transitional form.

Illinois Record, Springfield IL, [America's Historical Newspapers] Jan 29, 1898, p. 3 col. 5 "Spingfield South-End Happenings": "What little jetney coachman on S. 6th street has such a big head he cant put on the coachman's hat he only wears the coat with brass buttons?"

Note association with coach as well as (presumably) coin (or token), of little worth.

This can be found on the LinguistsList Listserve in a posting from July, 2016.

3

Supplemental to the pre-existing fine answers, I've antedated 'jitney' in the sense of 'nickel' to 09 Dec 1886, where the slang term appears on page 1 of the Springfield Daily Republic (behind paywall; at that time the newspaper was published as the Springfield Globe-Republic in Springfield, Ohio):

jitney is a nickel, 1886 Springfield Globe-Republic

Different Names for a Five-Cent Piece

The bootblacks at the Springfield depots haven't got any flies on them, you bet. They are nothing if not up with the times. This morning one of them accosted a young man with the usual —
"Shine 'em up, sir."
"No."
"Do it for five."
"Don't wan't it."
"Do it for a 'nick.'"
"Don't wan't 'em shined."
"Do it for a 'jitney,'"
"No."
"Do it for a louie."
"Oh, for heaven's sake, go 'way."
It is hard to tell how many more slang terms the kid would have used for a five-cent piece if he hadn't left just then to strike another prospective customer.

Antedating 'jitney' in the sense of 'nickel' to 1886 tends to buttress the anecdotal account reported at Etymonline that the term was in use as early as 1849, while establishing that use in Ohio somewhat erodes the claim that the origin was in the US West.

2

Here is an antedating slightly older than the one posted above by JEL. It too is from Springfield Globe-Republic (8 August 1886, p. 1): “Next week, get a tent, put ‘t over his nibs, charge two jitneys to git in. Money? Well, ax me. Pard, we ain’t much on looks, but we’re some on gettin’ there.”

It may be possible to antedate the word (which has been spelled jetney, gitney, and jitney) to the 1870s:

"Does jitney mean a nickel, or a ride, or a method of transportation, or a state of mind? Apparently it now means transportation, whether it means transportation for a nickel or not is disputed. Certainly the term 'jitney,' before the jitney boom arose, meant a small coin, a cent, five cents, a dime, or a quarter. As a boy in San Francisco, the writer has heard and used the term 'jitney,' meaning either a nickel or a dime. Cents in those days were unheard of on the coast. Later, in New Orleans, the term jitney was often heard, but there it seemed to refer to a nickel alone. May we advance a theory? The jitney, we think, originated in Louisiana in the Creole word, 'jetton,' meaning a counter, or poker chip. It did not necessarily mean a nickel, because this was in the days before nickels were invented, and in Louisiana until the time of the civil war circulated a miscellaneous assortment of Spanish, French and South American coin. Therefore, jitney meant the smaller denominations of these coin—sous and pesos and what not. From Louisiana the term naturally traveled to California. It has been in use there since the days of '49. How do I know? Three reasons: first, we infer that the word was in common use because we had learned it there; secondly, because several pioneers have told us it was used; thirdly, because in reading the old files of the Overland Magazine some time ago, dated in the seventies, ]I found that the term jitney is used by one of the characters of a story of San Francisco life, the context of the story shows that this particular 'jitney' was a quarter. A further proof that a jitney is not necessarily a nickel is that in early times no coin of less value than a quarter circulated on the coast.

"So. Mr. Jitneur, when some opponent upbraids you for not being a true jitney because you may charge more than five cents, read him this article and crush him to earth. A jitney is a small coin, such as the great American public are now paying for trackless transportation.

"Postscript—Alas, for trying to prove anything! We have just received word that a Canadian board of councilmen have decided that a 'jitney' is five cents" (unsigned, "What does Jitney Mean?," The Jitney Bus, vol. 1, no. 4, July 1915, p. 114; the bracketed addition is mine).

I say "may be possible to antedate," because the passage of time (cf. "some time ago") may play tricks on one's memory. Issues of The Overland Monthly have to examined line by line.

The anonymous writer's speculation in the rest of the passage is likewise subject to examination. Nothing is to be taken on faith, such as his inference that "the word was in common use because we had learned it there" and his reasoning that the word had been used in California "since the days of '49 [...] because several pioneers have told us it was used."

Also, since five-cent coins have been minted in the United States since the 1790s, the writer's ability to know what the situation was "in the days before nickels were invented" is doubtful.

A supplement to the following chapter is now in preparation:

Gold, David L. 2009. “American English jitney 'five-cent coin; sum of five cents' Has No Apparent Jewish or Russian Connection and May Come from (Black?) Louisiana French jetnée (On the Increasing Difficulty of Harvesting All the Grain).” In his Studies in Etymology and Etiology (With Emphasis on Germanic, Jewish, Romance, and Slavic Languages). Selected and edited, with a foreword, by Félix Rodríguez González and Antonio Lillo Buades. Alicante. Publicaciones de la Universidad de Alicante. Pp.163-192 [partly available here: https://books.google.com/books?id=l015C5vm1XkC&q=jitney#v=snippet&q=jitney&f=false].

The supplement will, inter alia, examine the suggestion that the word jetney ~ gitney ~ jitney comes from jeton ~ jetton and the suggestion that it comes from jetnée. The evidence is strong that both suggestions are indefensible. The supplement will propose a different immediate etymon for the English word.

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