Jaywalking is an interesting term. Some think it refers to blue jays, but they’re mistaken. Jaywalking is when a person crosses or walks in the street unlawfully or without regard for approaching traffic. In most instances, if a person crosses the street anywhere but at a crosswalk or an intersection, they are technically jaywalking.
It was on September 19, 1997 that the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel published an article written by Jessica McBride titled, “Alderman Wants Jaywalking Rules Eased.” The Alderman in question was Jeff Pawlinksi, and it seems that a jaywalking ticket kicked the discussion off for the alderman was the one issued to District Attorney Michael McCann on May 23 of that year. The article read in part:
Jaywalking tickets are back in vogue as part of the “quality of life” policing strategy begun by Police Chief Arthur Jones last fall. That philosophy holds that cracking down on smaller crimes, such as jaywalking, prevents larger ones.
But Milwaukee and it’s relationship with jaywalking is an interesting one to say the least. More than thirty years earlier, on July 31, 1965 the Milwaukee Journal published an article about jaywalking and the ordinances in Milwaukee and other state laws that governed the offense. In the article, it stated that the judge pointed out that two teachers who had received citations for jaywalking had been charged with violating the wrong city ordinance, and because of that, the two University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee teachers who had been cited, were let off the hook. The article in question was titled, “Milwaukee: Things You Should Know About Jaywalking.”
The Telegraph newspaper of Nashua, New Hampshire published an article on December 27, 1945 that took on the issue of jaywalking. It talked about the anti-jaywalking ordinance that took a year and a half to hammer out, and the newspaper wrote it was about time the jaywalking problem was properly addressed. The article included this information on the recommended ordinance:
Nashua’s outgoing Board of Aldermen has recommended to the incoming board that such an ordinance be drawn up by the City Solicitor prohibiting jaywalking on Main Street from Hollis Street North to Fletcher Street, “pedestrian cross traffic between these two points to be permitted only on the designated well-painted and well-illuminated cross walks.”
In the 1937 movie “The Great O’Malley” Pat O’Brien (11 November 1899 – 15 October 1983) played the role of James Aloysius O’Malley. He was a by-the-books sort of officer and when newspaper reporter Pinky Holden (played by Hobart Cavanaugh) wrote an article poking fun at the officer’s meticulous work habits, the Chief of Police put him on crossing guard duty instead. One of the many tickets Officer O’Malley wrote out before winding up a crossing guard was a ticket to his own mother for jaywalking.
The word jay described someone who was naive or foolish and so when Harper’s Monthly Magazine published an article in 1917 entitled, “Our Upstart Speech” by Robert P. Utter (23 November 1875 – 17 February 1936), Associates Professor of English at Amherst College, it’s not surprising that the word jaywalking was included. The topic, of course, was slang and how it was finding its way into everyday language more and more often. The author took on different kinds of slang, including college slang which included such words as prof for professor, exam for examination, dorm for dormitory, policon for political economy, and other terms. In many respects, college slang was “texting” of its generation. With regards to jaywalking, the author had this to say about the expression.
If these last long enough in our every-day vocabulary to lose the gloss of technicality we may reduce them to lower terms, even as the Bostonian, supposedly sesquipedalian of speech, has reduced “a pedestrian who crosses streets in disregard of traffic regulations” to the compact jaywalker.
Some may insist that this was the earliest published use of the word, but they’d be wrong because five years earlier, in Kansas City, Missouri, the first ordinance criminalizing jaywalking was enacted to improve traffic conditions. At the time, it was reported in the local newspaper that jaywalking was as bad as joy riding. While the residents of Kansas City were concerned over losing a small personal liberty, they supported the new ordinance on the basis that the residents were averse to being thought of as “boobs, jays, ginks, or farmers” when their city was one of the top twenty large cities in the United States of America. All of this was reported in the magazine “Automobile Topics: Volume 25, Number 9” published on April 13, 1912.
The first traffic laws in the U.S. were enacted in 1899, and on May 20, 1899, Jacob German, a New York City cab driver employed by the Electric Vehicle Company (one of New York City’s earliest cab companies), was arrested for driving his electric taxi down Lexington street in Manhattan at the dangerous speed of 12 mph. He was imprisoned in the East 22nd Street station house for a time, and eventually set free. Yes, Jacob German was the first person in the U.S. to be cited for speeding!
INTERESTING SIDE NOTE: The first man ever arrested and convicted of speeding was Walter Arnold of East Peckham, Kent in England. He was stopped by an officer as he zipped by at 8 mph in a 2 mph zone. On 28 January 1896, Walter was found guilty of the charge against him, and received a fine for speeding.
The New York City law paved the way for the first state speed limit law in Connecticut which was enacted on May 21, 1901. The law was the first speed limit law and limited motor vehicle speeds to 12 mph in cities and 15 mph on country roads. Two years later, in 1903, New York City adopted the first comprehensive traffic code.
So, as you can see, in 1912, it was quite progressive for any city to enact an ordinance that addressed the issue of jaywalkers. That being said, Kansas City wasn’t the first place jaywalking or jaywalkers was used. It popped up in an article in the Chicago Tribune on April 7, 1909 where the following was written:
Chauffeurs assert with some bitterness that their ‘joy riding’ would harm nobody if there were not so much jay walking.
However, two years before the Chicago Tribune article, the Guthrie Daily Leader newspaper in Oklahoma made mention of jaywalkers in the October 22, 1907 edition of the newspaper.
The term, as you can see, was an off-shoot of the phrase jay driver which was used in newspaper stories with alarming regularity. For example, this headline in the Albuquerque Evening Citizen newspaper of June 29, 1907 saw the phrase make the headlines as it did in many newspaper from 1905 onwards.
And so the expression jaywalker was first published in 1907, less than a decade after the first traffic laws came into existence. And since jaywalking is what jaywalkers do, the word jaywalking also came into vogue at the same time.