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Jay-walking

Q From Marty Ryerson; related questions came from Matthias Werner, Fred A Roth, Richard Hacker, Robert L Hamm and Dalia Wolfson: When someone crosses the street in a city illegally, it’s called jay-walking. This usually means crossing at a point other than the intersection. What does the J stand for, or who is Jay? What is the origin of this term?

A It has been said that people who take their lives in their hands in the big city by crossing the street anywhere dodge across in the pattern of a letter J — hence J-walking. Do not believe this.

The experts are sure the jay is the bird, one of the American jays, presumably the common blue jay. From around the last quarter of the nineteenth century, jay had been a slang term in North America for a stupid, gullible, ignorant, or provincial person, a rustic, bumpkin or simpleton. I would guess it refers to the noisy chattering of these conversational birds. The jay that I sometimes see on country walks, the European species, belongs in the genus Garrulus and garrulous is just the right word for it — jay was an insulting term for a foolish chattering person back in the 1500s. It’s not hard to see how country cousins, unversed to city ways, could have had this well-established sobriquet attached to them by supercilious metropolitans.

Some evidence recently unearthed by Douglas Wilson suggests jay walker was an adaptation of various earlier expressions, especially jay driver.

Against “Jay” Driving. The city attorney prepared and submitted an ordinance which provides that teams and vehicles, including automobiles, keep on the right-hand side of the street when they travel farther than a half block and providing further that they shall not pass crossings at a speed faster than a walk.

Ogden Standard, Utah, 18 April 1906. Other newspaper examples from the same period suggest that the prime characteristic of a jay driver was that he wandered about all over the road, causing confusion among other drivers. It was explained in the Emporia Gazette of Kansas on 13 July 1911: “A jay driver is a species of the human race who, when driving either a horse or an automobile, or riding a bicycle on the streets, does not observe the rules of the road. It is the custom of the jay driver to drive on the wrong side of the street.”

In the second decade of the twentieth century we begin to see references in US papers to the new term jaywalkers, usually because city councils are passing ordinances to stop pedestrians crossing the street anywhere they wanted to. The earliest I know of is this:

Kansas City used to consider itself a town of jay walkers. That is another line in which New York deserves the discredit of being at the front of the procession. A typical Manhattan [person] would be run over and trampled on the sidewalk if he tried to walk on State street in Chicago as he walks on Broadway, New York. He has never heard of the prehistoric principle of keeping to the right — he ambles all over the sidewalk.

Washington Post, 7 May 1911. (Reprinted from the Kansas City Star.)

Numerous others turn up in newspapers in the following couple of years: in Washington DC in March 1913, in Fort Wayne, Indiana, in June that year (in a report which defines a jaywalker as “an alleged human being who crosses the street at other points than the regular crossings”) and in October in Lincoln, Nebraska. These show the term had quite suddenly become widely distributed and fairly common. I would guess that it had been around for some time in the spoken language and private usage. It would seem to be the rapid increase in motorised traffic that had led to the epithet and the regulations against jaywalking.

The Nebraska appearance was in an open letter to the city commissioners from a disgruntled citizen:

Dear Friends: Forget all about that “jaywalking” ordinance, the very name of which insults every citizen. Give the people credit for having a grain of common sense, like yourselves, and of being able to take care of themselves, as they have heretofore managed to do without your grandmotherly help.

Lincoln Daily Star, Nebraska, 8 October 1913. The letter had no effect — the ordinance became law the following month.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.

Page created 18 Oct. 2008
Last updated 28 Feb. 2009

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Last modified: 28 February 2009.