A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

What's the origin of the term "jaywalking"?

July 16, 1999

Dear Straight Dope:

What's up with the term "jaywalking"? It doesn't involve walking in a "J" pattern. Are bluejays prone to illegally crossing the road?

I grabbed this one because I figured it would be a quick and easy answer. I figured wrong. My usual word and phrase origin sources all came up dry on jaywalking - except for Old Faithful, the Oxford English Dictionary. The OED gives this definition for jaywalking: "A pedestrian who crosses the street without regard to traffic regulations." It gives this cite from the June, 1927 edition of Harper's:   "the Bostonian ... has reduced 'a pedestrian who crosses streets in disregard of traffic signals' to the compact 'jaywalking.'"

Well, that doesn't really give us the why, does it? I can only offer the theory that one of the definitions offered for the word "jay" is "a stupid or silly person; a simpleton." Combine that version of "jay" with "walker" and you could have a person who darts out between two parked cars--or, in 1927, two parked horse and buggies.

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