Sun, May 11, 2003 - Page 9 News List

Latest slang got you jonesing for an explanation?

By William Safire  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

Preoccupied of late with war words, I have not kept up with the jonesing.

Jonesing for Joni was listed in Entertainment Weekly, describing a PBS documentary on the folk singer Joni Mitchell.

"For those of you who have been jonesing for an interactive theater fix" was the lead of a recent film review by Michael Gallucci in The Cleveland Scene.

"Love Is the Drug, and I'm Jonesing for a Hit" was the headline in The New York Observer over an article last month by Susan Shapiro kvetching about her husband's lack of sexual aggressiveness.

This is obviously a participle in play, presumably the latest, hot, with-it usage. On digging into the New York Times archives, however, I found this Oct. 19, 1970, citation in a profile of Alva John, a Harlem broadcaster: "That food may not be the most delicious in the world, but it's not nearly so dangerous as these jones you've been having."

The reporter, now Charlayne Hunter-Gault of PBS, explained in parenthesis: "A jones is a craving brought on by drug usage."

The root is a proper noun: For a reason I cannot fathom, Jones -- a family name held in my estimation by nearly 18 million Americans -- was applied in the early 1960s to heroin addiction. J.E. Lighter's Historical Dictionary of American Slang speculates about another possible origin: the male sex organ.

In the 1970s, the noun -- no longer capitalized -- most often referred to withdrawal symptoms, and made the transition to verb: jonesing out. In 1984, I noted that "jonesin' " was extended to mean "doin' nothin'," as addicts often do, but it was not until this millennium that the participle made the leap into popular speech as a generalized "craving."

"When I was little," says my colleague Maureen Dowd (meaning when she was growing up in Washington), "we used to say `jone-ing,' which meant `picking on.' When you were jone-ing on someone, you were mocking them." This local usage was overwhelmed by the national underground popularity of "jonesing," in its postnarcotics sense of "lusting for."

On Gawker Stalker, a Web site that observes, and leers and snickers at, personalities in the news, a notably slim fashion editor was spotted "zeta-jonesing on a McVeggie at the gaudy, fou-fou McDonald's on 42nd btw 8th & b'way."

Thus does the language come full circle. The allusion is to the actress Catherine Zeta-Jones, cattily scolded for adding a few pounds since her Oscar-winning performance in Chicago. Cruelly but creatively, the blogger applies her hyphenated last name to the lusting after a tasty burger by the hungry editor. To take the meaning of this nonce variation from the context, "zeta-jonesing" is "indulging in a craving for (meatless) food." This specialized usage returns "jonesing" to its original state of a proper noun in participle form.

In current slang use, "jonesing" has evolved from its narcotics-addiction base to a general lusting, craving or yearning. It seems to have shouldered aside "to have the hots for."

HARM'S WAY

As GW2 effectively ended, President Bush said, "We continue to pray for all who serve in our military and those who remain in harm's way." Next day, Secretary of State Colin Powell protested Russia's aid to Iraq, which "put our young men and women in harm's way."

"In danger" and "at risk" are seldom heard; we will now delve into the etymology of the operative phrase for potential trouble.

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