The other day, I spotted a scofflaw jog across the street without using a crosswalk. As I stood there, twiddling my thumbs waiting for the light to change, I got to wondering about the expression “jaywalking.” How did that term get its start?
Back in early 20th century the term “jay” was slang for country bumpkin or hick. To put it another way, a type of person who didn’t have any experience in the big, scary city. Back then, many people were seeing cities for the first time and didn’t know the rules of the road. As a consequence, they wandered out into streets and risked being hit by cars. People called these folks “jaywalkers.” It was not a term of endearment.
The Straight Dope pins down the origin to Boston. A 1927 issue of Harpers wrote, “the Bostonian … has reduced ‘a pedestrian who crosses streets in disregard of traffic signals’ to the compact ‘jaywalking.’”
These days, folks who jaywalk risk more than being honked at by angry drivers. Hefty fines ($191 in Los Angeles, for example) can result. Or, if they’re having a really bad day, a trip to the hospital.
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