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?

  • 2
    Etymonline seems to indicate the usage for coin and vehicle arose simultaneously: etymonline.com/index.php?term=jitney
    – cobaltduck
    Commented Jan 10, 2017 at 21:51
  • Further than Merriam-Webster, why not consider google.com/… Which came first might be debatable in US English but here in the UK we have no nickels and still, Jitney meant a bus or other vehicle carrying passengers for a low fare. Commented Jan 12, 2021 at 1:04

6 Answers 6


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.


Here is an antedating slightly older than the one posted by JEL on 12 January 2017. It too is from Springfield Globe-Republic (8 August 1886, p. 1, "The Lima Stone Man"): “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 be examined line by line (so far I have been unable to find the word there).

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 [that is, five-cent coins (D. L. G.)] were invented" is doubtful.

The following articles are the only treatments of the word in depth:

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.

Gold, David L. 2018-2020. “Pursuing the origin of the American English informalism gitney ~ jitney: On the alleged Louisiana French word *jetnée and the fallacy of omne ignotum pro magnifico in etymological research.” Leuvense Bijdragen: Leuven Contributions in Linguistics and Philology. Vol. 102. Pp. 383 - 417.

Gold, David L. 2021. “American English jitney '[any] American coin of low denomination' < gittany ~ jittany 'idem' < Louisiana French *jetonnet *'idem' = French jeton + diminutive suffix -et (A Study in English and French Etymology and Numismatics).” In: Literature is Comparative : Toute littérature est littérature comparée. Etudes de littérature et de linguistique offertes à Roy Rosenstein par ses collègues, ses disciples et ses amis. Textes recueillis par Danielle Buschinger, Martine Marzloff, Patricia Gillies et Marie-Geneviève Grossel. Amiens. Presses du Centre d'Etudes Médiévales de Picardie. Collection Médiévales no. 70. Pp. 232-243.

This is the abstract of Gold 2018-2020:

The author’s first treatment of the informal American English noun gitney ~ jitney /ˈǧɪtni/ 1. ‘five-cent coin’. 2. ‘[sum of] five cents’ (see above) concludes that

  1. No evidence supports the suggestion that the word is of Russian origin or the suggestion that it is of Yidish origin and

  2. Evidence speaks against both suggestions.

Gold 2009 mentions another etymology suggested for gitney ~ jitney (namely, that it comes from the alleged French noun *jetnée) but does not go into detail. The present article delves deeper into that suggestion; it finds no reliable evidence for that word; and it suggests that if the word has ever existed, it is likely a reflex of gitney ~ jitney. The present article also examines Stephen Goranson’s recently suggested etymology of gitney ~ jitney, namely, < earlier American English jetney ‘?’ < French *jetnée, and finds no evidence for it.

This is the table of contents of the second article:

  1. Introduction (with some remarks on toponymy and glottonymy)

  2. The Financial Panic of 1914 led to the emergence of an additional meaning of the word jitney

  3. The poem that George Washington Lee said was evidence for the alleged word *jetnée

  4. Analysis of the version of the poem in Lee 1915

4.1. Literary texts, all the more so, poetry, may not be faithful reflections of everyday spoken usage

4.2. Language

4.2.1. Meter and rimes

4.2.2. The conclusion of a morphological analysis of the dis legomenon *jetnée is that one of these two possibilities is right: (1) if the word has ever existed outside the poem and was coined in one or more French-related lects under no alloglossic influence, it probably meant, at least initially, *‘five sous’ worth’, *‘five centimes’ worth’, or *‘five cents’ worth’, (2) if the word has ever existed outside the poem and was coined under alloglossic influence, it is a borrowing of North American English gitney ~ jitney by speakers of one or more French-related lects, in which case it tells us nothing about the origin of that English word

4.2.3. Misprints and other mistakes

4.2.4. Use of a bare count noun in lines 1 and 3 is in all likelihood not a feature of Kouri-Vini origin

  1. One of these two possibilities is right: (1) Lee neither coined the word *jetnée nor wrote the poem, (2) as part of a hoax, in 1915 he coined the word and wrote the poem

  2. The fallacy of omne ignotum pro magnifico in etymological writings

  3. In its present state, Stephen Goranson’s suggested etymology of gitney ~ jitney rests on no verified evidence

  4. Conclusions

  5. References

This is the abstract of Gold 2021:

This article examines the possibilities that jitney may come from (1) American English jetton ‘piece of metal, ivory, or other material, bearing an inscription or device, formerly used as a counter in casting up accounts and in card-playing’, (2) jeton *‘coin’ in one or more French-related varieties of Upper and/or Lower Louisiana’, and/or (3) *jetonnet *‘[any] coin of low denomination’ in one or more French-related varieties of Upper and/or Lower Louisiana’ and concludes that only the third possibility is likely.

In response to Greybeard's comments (later in this thread):

Thank you for your comments.

Regarding, “‘A five-cent piece, a nickel,’” as noted in the post above edited on 29 October 2020, the word has been used to designate coins worth up to and including twenty-five American cents.

French jeton cannot be the immediate etymon of jitney for phonological reasons (an article now in press in France will give details).

The Yidish suggestion has indeed been dismissed for lack of evidence (details in Gold 2009).

There being no conceivable link been rye and a coin worth up to and including twenty-five American cents, the Ukrainian adjective житній (have you found it in Russian) cannot be the immediate etymon of American English gitney ~ jitney.

As noted above, the currently earliest-known use of jitney, however spelled, is in Springfield Globe-Republic of 8 August 1886. The number of speakers of Ukrainian in the United States before that date was tiny and their linguistic influence nil.

With respect to cobaltduck's remark (above)that "Etymonline seems to indicate the usage for coin and vehicle arose simultaneously, the vehicular sense of the word could not have arisen before 1 July 1914 (for the reason, see the section headed "The Financial Panic of 1914 led to the emergence of an additional meaning of the word jitney" (on pages 387-390 of Gold 2018-2020, referenced above). Thus, the monetary sense has to be at least twenty-eight years older than the vehicular one.


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.

  • What is the clear and convincing evidence that jetney in Illinois Record of 29 January 1898 refers to a sum of money or to a coin? Section 7 of Gold 2018-2020 (mentioned above) takes up that matter. Commented Nov 1, 2020 at 1:41

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."
"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,'"
"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.


Jitney appears to be relatively recent

The OED gives

Etymology: Origin unknown.

North American.

1. A five-cent piece, a nickel. slang.

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.

1915 Nation (N.Y.) 4 Feb. 142/1 The word ‘jitney’..is the Jewish slang term for a nickel.

1915 Nation (N.Y.) 18 Mar. 304/3 A ‘jitney’ 'bus derives its name from ‘jitney’, meaning the smallest coin in circulation in Russia.

The early reference to St Louis tends, via the French influence) towards the "jeton" theory.

The Jewish origin is not so clear: I can find nothing in Yiddish to support it, but

In Russian (from where many Jews emigrated) "жи́тний" (pronounced dzheet-nee) means "rye" (the cereal used for baking bread and making vodka.)

The website of the University of Missouri - St. Louis gives:

St. Louis has a large immigrant population from Russia and the former Soviet Union. (A 2006 census of ancestry estimates the population at 16,890.) Russian immigrants have come to the city in waves during times of political turmoil or for economic reasons. Many arrived during or just after World War II, others came during the Cold War or when the Berlin Wall fell. Jewish immigrants fled discrimination in their home country and many Christian immigrants came as a result of missionary work.


According to one report, "Jitney," the name of a small Spanish-American coin, was a slang term for five cents [Nickel/Nickel] employed by the "barkers" or barrelhead vocalists who vociferated in front of the lower types of side shows on midways, at fairs or suburban amusement grounds.

The name, once applied to this type of automobile service by many of its patrons, adhered and in time was accepted by the operators themselves and employed to designate their more or less loose associations for mutual benefit. (Shortt, Adam, 1859-1931; Kemp, Hubert R. 1894- (association) (1917) Archive.org (Difficult, for me, to connect link!)

Barrelhead meaning: top of barrel where the small coin, the jitney, was thrown. A smaller, but similar catchment device may have been seen, and utilised in the vehicle used which was, subsequently, called a jitney in 1914.

Related idiom: I'll play on the barrelhead meaning that if you pay cash on the barrelhead, or on the barrel, you pay for something immediately and in cash. The origin may be connected to drinks bars.

The reason that the etymology is unknown IMO is that this may not only be a slang word, but could also be considerably longer, particularly if it orignated from the Creole language. This patois-esque language (albeit Spanish in this instance) may use words similar to that used by the current Prime Minister, Boris Johnson: 'Picanninny.'

Notwithstanding, this is the correct spelling, Pickaninny (also picaninny, piccaninny or pickinninie) is a word applied originally by people of the West Indies to their babies and more widely referring to small children, as in Melanesian Pidgin. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pickaninny,.

See also: mid 17th century: from West Indian creole, from Spanish pequeño or Portuguese pequeno ‘little’,‘tiny’ (https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/pickaninny), en.wikipedia.org › wiki › Pickaninny. The shortened Patois version is 'Pickney' but can sound like 'Pit'ney (soft -t).' https://jamaicanpatwah.com/translator

Warning: Theoretically, there may be a derogatory word (Spanish for small coin) awaiting discovery!

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