Yesterday, I thought I'd scored a bit of a coup by finding the earliest known use of jerk to mean a stupid person. But Ben Zimmer posted it to the American Dialect Society mailing list, where Doug Wilson suggests it's Turk, not jerk. Listen here and tell me what you think.
I can't find an authoritative source for the lyrics. The web certainly prefers jerk to Turk by about a factor of 10 to 1. But there's the book, Nowhere in America: the Big Rock Candy Mountain and other comic utopias, which claims to use the lyrics by permission of McClintock's estate, and it has Turk.
[Update, March 9: Royalty Recovery Inc negotiated the royalties for McClintock's estate for the O Brother album. Sadly, Jeff Gandel from Royalty Recovery confirms that the original lyric is Turk. Oh well...]
My ears tell me it's 'Turk', while the common sense part of me (if there is any!) makes me want to hear 'jerk', perhaps to be more politically correct.
And the drummer part of me (yes, I have played in various amateur bands for years) says, oh come on, it doesn't matter, you can hear what you like to hear - which may be a reason music doesn't contribute to OED as much as you might expect.
Poetry and lyrics have a way of leaving the writer to rest in the reader/hearer's ears. Don McLean says he doesn't quite know what his own 'American Pie' means. Or did they say 'knowing she would' or 'Norwegian wood' in the well-known Beatles song? Music often defies language. Unless you're Roger Waters. Wait, even then it does.
In this particular song, however, I am inclined to hear 'Turk' because in the same song, there is 'jail' - and the j of jail is clearly a standard, soft kind of j - which is very different from the initial consonant of 'Turk/jerk' in question.
So, I'm sorry, it sounds to me like 'Turk', and really, it shouldn't matter, if the song is to remain as nice as it is.
I had always heard it as "jerk" before, but for the first time I noticed that the affricate is clearly voiceless, so "Turk" seems possible. There seems to be a possibility that the singer stumbled a little bit, since the syllable in question is sung very staccato compared to the rest of the phrase.
BTW, "stupid person"? I have never heard that definition before. And if the word is "jerk", it definitely could fit the definition I know of, which is, put simply, "mean person".
"Stupid person" is the gloss from the OED sense 5, but yes, I know what you mean about meanness.
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