A short history of jaywalking

by Michael Smith

(Originally posted to ebikes, the New York cyclists' Internet mailing list.)

Mayor Caliguliani's campaign against "jaywalkers" (dutifully endorsed, of course, by some of us here on this august list) got me to thinking about the concept.

At one time, of course, there were no jaywalkers; there were only walkers. They shared the streets, at first, with horses and carts; later with trams and bicycles; finally with motor vehicles. I don't have the information at hand, but I doubt that there were many traffic signals on streets (apart from railroad crossings) until the last-named came along. It was, of course, only then that it became possible to be a jaywalker.

The earliest citation I've been able to find for the word itself is 1917. (This is thanks to the unremunerated labors of an patient friend with a large collection of reference works.)

"Jay" is, or was, a slang term, derived, we're told, from Latin "gaius," meaning a countryman or a rustic, by way of mediaeval French. The slang meaning is a fool, a bumpkin, a coarse or unsophisticated individual.

Apparently the earliest sense, then, is somebody who's such a hayseed that he doesn't understand about traffic signals.

What I don't know, yet, is in what milieu this term first arose -- policemen? Journalists? Motorists? Generic urban smarty-pantses?

At any rate, it is the linguistic fossil of an act of expropriation. Just walking, ad libitum, as formerly practiced, became jaywalking, with the takeover of street surface by motorized traffic, and the consequent relegation of its former owners to reservations on the sidewalks and crosswalks.

Interestingly, the appropriation first occurred in cities; the people who didn't get it were therefore, by imputation, rustics -- country cousins -- rubes.

What a transformation. The sense of the word has flipped 180 degrees. It now doesn't mean a rube; it means an echt urbanite, an anarchic New Yorker, a defiant, lawless, screw-you-buddy person who insolently insists on defying the natural order of things, as understood by right-thinking suburbanites in cars. This mirrors the social inversion which has put the rubes in the saddle, and the urban smarties under the harrow. Of course the rubes are no longer the old unpasteurized kind that you used to find in the countryside; they're manufactured rubes, turned out to very precise specifications by a thorough program of media indoctrination and contrived isolation in suburban sensory- deprivation tanks.

Well, if they've appropriated our space, the least we can do is appropriate their word. Let's have some T-shirts made up, with some appropriately defiant slogan. Any suggestions? My ideas are always too prosy, but I was thinking along the lines of:

    Don't like
    Drive home!!

Essays and refections -- contents