'Jaywalker' term born as autos boomed

In this city, pedestrians are given a lot of leeway, when and where they can cross a street. I really do understand that point after dodging bicycles, tricycles and skateboards on the same sidewalks where in many places it's clearly stenciled: No bicycle riding or skateboarding on sidewalk. My question is merely why do they call it J-walking? Does it stand for jogging as you cross the street?

— Ernie M., Medford


Our lengthy pursuit to find your answer crossed more digital intersections than we care to report, Ernie. Often we veered from one tab to another, kind of like onscreen jaywalking.

There are many elements to the origins of the term, but we can safely say, it was an "us vs. them" term along the lines of "you idiot, low-down jaywalker."

Calling someone a "jay" was a pejorative aimed at poor, unsophisticated hicks, usually from the country.

As roadways were built and automobiles began touring the country, drivers would encounter jays crossing the road.

Many towns, therefore, passed ordinances prohibiting crossing the street other than at a marked crosswalk or when the blinking sign said, "Wait."

An online Merriam-Webster entry insists the term originated in Kansas, but there are lots of historical elements.

A New York Times writer in January 1937 complained: “In many streets like Oxford Street, for instance, the jaywalker wanders complacently in the very middle of the roadway as if it was a country lane.”

The Oxford English Dictionary points to the June 1917 edition of Harper’s Magazine, “The Bostonian … has reduced ‘a pedestrian who crosses streets in disregard of traffic signals’ to the compact jaywalker.” Elsewhere, we find a 1909 Chicago Tribune reference of "so much jaywalking.”

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