Q&A: The origin of “Jimmy”

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, the jimmy synonymy…

Q: Hey AWC, I was wondering about why people say “jimmy” to open something? As in “to jimmy open a window”. Who was Jimmy? 

A: James Winchester was an 18th century thief who became famous for breaking into homes via their bathroom windows.

Q: Oh wow. Really?

A: Nope. We made that up. 

Q: It certainly sounded convincing. 

A: It did. And the James part is not entirely wrong. You see, it did indeed come from James. But before it was “jimmy”, it was known as “jemmy” – the name for a particular short crowbar favoured by those looking to prise something open. 

Q: Jemmy, you say?

A: That’s right.  “Jemmy” was also a common name for James in the 18th century. It was originally an adjective for being neat or fastidious, but by 1811 became a nickname for that short crowbar – also known as a jemmy rook or jemmy bar. 

Q: Why “jemmy” at all though?

A: Nobody is really sure, although it’s likely to have started in the gutter.

Q: As a dirty word?

A: Haha, no – the literal gutter – with the word “jenny” being a tool used to lift up grates. By the start of the 19th century, jenny became jemmy.

Q: And there’s nothing wrong with that.

A: Not at all.

Q: Is “jemmy” still used today?

A: It certainly is, especially in Britain and here in Australia – although it may get heard as “jimmy” – it’s a more recognisable name today. It also could be because “jimmy” is the term used in America. 

Q: So “jemmy” came first?

A: It did. The name “jimmy” for a crowbar would come later – around 1848 in American English. The verb form – to jimmy something open; jimmied or jimmying – didn’t become a thing until 1893. 

Q: So we have both jemmy and jimmy – what’s the deal these days?

A: As we said, you will find both, however since the 1940s, “jimmy” has been more common. They’re identical in every way – as a synonym for a crowbar or the action of opening something in a non-standard way.

Q: Opening something with a crowbar?

A: Well, originally yes, but these days, to “jimmy” something can simply mean to break into something – for example, to jimmy a lock with a credit card.

Q: Oh okay. I once tried to open a door with a credit card, but I couldn’t remember those three digits on the back.

A: Ummm. Sure.

Q: Anyway, thanks for the lesson. I’ll remember it next time I’m trying to jimmy something open. Any other interesting facts?

A: Yes actually. A short iron crowbar was also known as a “billy” around the same time as “jimmy” emerged. It seems however that James bested William in that fight. Continuing the theme of naming tools after common names was a “bess” – a similar iron implement. Another one of this era was a “jack” – that device still used to help change a tyre.

Q: Hmmm, how odd, the word I have for that is “roadside assist”. 

A: Haha, well yes, that will also work.

Q: And “jimmy” for a crowbar has nothing to do with “Jim Crow”?

A: Oh, not at all. “Jim Crow” was the term for discriminatory laws against African Americans for almost a century from the 1880s. In the US, “Jim Crow” had been synonymous with “black man” since the 1830s – after the name of a blackface minstrel character performed by Thomas D. Rice. It’s a whole separate discussion!

Q: So, back to the original topic – should I use “jemmy” or “jimmy” in my writing?

A: We’d suggest that while “jemmy” is perfectly fine outside America, it might be better to opt for “jimmy” – it’s widely known by all readers, even if it wasn’t the original crowbar of choice.


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