Monday, November 24, 2014

Jaywalkers and Jayhawkers - a Pedestrian History and Etymology of "Jaywalking"

Jaywalkers, Jayhawkers, Jay-Towns and Jays  –

a Pedestrian History and Etymology of “Jaywalking”

The word, “Jaywalking,” did not originate with Jay Leno.

The word, “Jaywalkers,” did it originate with the British-Invasion pop-group, Peter Jay and the Jaywalkers, who toured with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones in the mid-Sixties. 

But when Peter Jay and the “Jaywalkers” released their 45 of Lieber and Stoller’s classic song, Kansas City, in 1963, they hinted at (most likely unknowingly) the origins of both expressions.  

Kansas City, you see, is the place on the map that put “jaywalking” on the map. 

The First Anti-Jay-Walking Law

When only horse-drawn wagons and pedestrians vied with one another for space on city streets, there was little or no reason for traffic laws.  Horses were slow – and pedestrians were agile.  But when new technologies entered the fray, confusion, chaos and danger reigned.  In Brooklyn, New York, for example, the wholesale introduction of electric trolleys in 1892 led to hundreds of deaths, a trolley operator strike, and a popular uprising that led to the introduction and enforcement of some of the first speed limits.  The name of the Los Angeles Dodgers is a lasting vestige of that conflict; honoring the Brooklyn pedestrians who famously dodged the new, and more dangerous, electric trolleys.  The subsequent introduction of privately-owned, motor-operated vehicles, that were not confined to a set of tracks, and were not necessarily operated by professional drivers, created new dangers, new solutions, a new frame of mind, and new words to make sense of the new world.

In 1912, Kansas City, Missouri enacted the first ordinance of its kind in the United States, if not the world, criminalizing the behavior of pedestrians on public streets:  

“Jay Walking” Curbed in Kansas City.  

By way of improving traffic conditions in Kansas City, Mo., a city ordinance has been passed prohibiting pedestrians to cross streets at any places other than the regulation crossings, the practice being labeled “jay walking” and reproved as something quite as bad as “joy riding.”  . . .  The enaction itself seemed to be alright, but it had the one drawback of seemingly taking away a certain amount of personal liberty, and natives of Kansas City, being from Missouri, wanted to be shown why they could not walk across a street when they saw fit.  But be it also known that Kansas City is placed twentieth on the list of large cities in the United States, and the natives are very proud of this fact, and are very averse to being thought of as boobs, jays, ginks or farmers, and so, working on this point, and with the knowledge of the psychological make up of the average dweller of Kansas City in mind, the town council got together and termed this cutting across streets as “jay walking.”  It had the immediate effect of making the Kansas Citian march along streets in military fashion, never daring to cross streets except in the approved style.

Automobile Topics, Volume 25, Number 9, New York, April 13, 1912, page 492.

Although the idea of requiring pedestrians to follow traffic laws may seem second-nature in the twenty-first century, it was a radical idea in 1912.  The automobile industry was still in its infancy.  New York City had only recently enacted the first comprehensive traffic codes, in 1903; the first line down the middle of the road was painted in Michigan the previous year; and traffic lights and stop signs were still a few years in the future.  Pedestrians who had always enjoyed free access to, and the right-of-way, on public streets, were confused and bewildered by the new world order.

Kansas City’s anti-jaywalking ordinance was novel enough at the time that it made national news.  Some critics decried the loss of personal freedom, and mocked the idea of regulating pedestrians; cars, after all, and not pedestrians, posed the real danger: 

The Jay Walker. 

Consider the jay walker.  He is omnipresent and although you may never have heard of him the chances are that you are “him” yourself.  The jay walker was discovered, examined, classified, named, and catalogued by faunal naturalists of the Kansas City police force. . . . 

A jay walker, let it be explained for the benefit of the uninitiated, is a pedestrian who walks all over the street, turning to the right or to the left, without rhyme or reason, cutting angles across corners in defiance of Euclid, taking the middle or the wrong side of the sidewalk, without compunction of conscience, and otherwise behaving as if it were plowed ground and not city pavement beneath his feet.

In Kansas City there be traffic regulations for feet as well as for wheels, and when a pedestrian fails to execute properly the maneuver of crossing a street he is arrested by the watchful traffic cop and is run in as a jay walker. This reform is said to have added greatly to the comfort and peace of mind of automobilists of the city.  As yet no schools for pedestrians have been opened, and as the traffic regulations are complex it is quite difficult for even an experienced chalk-line performer to avoid occasional lapses into jay walking.

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), April 26, 1912, last edition, page 10. 

Kansas City has decided that as a city grows it is very evident that all traffic on foot as well as on wheels must be controlled.  It believes that the “jay walker” is a menace to traffic in a busy city and will not permit him to stray all over a street on which the movement of vehicles is strictly regulated and so increase the danger of accidents, nor will it allow him to cut corners.

Evening Times Republican (Marshalltown, Iowa), May 10, 1912, page 6.

Regulating the Pedestrian.

The public especially in our large cities is at last to have the protection that it deserves.  The pernicious pedestrian is to be regulated.  Kansas City has recently adopted a new ordinance for the control of travel, not on wheels, not in autos or aeroplanes, but on foot.  This important step means that our large cities are finally to become fairly safe for buzz wagons, street cars, and vehicles of sundry other sorts and descriptions.  Kansas City is to be congratulated on setting the pace.  These pedestrians at whom the law is aimed, who recklessly jeopardize the lives and limbs of the law-abiding public, are characterized by the ordinance as “jay-walkers” . . . .  But, regardless of the terminology, we are glad to learn that the deadly foot passenger is going to be regulated.  It is to be hoped that Kansas City will be progressive enough to prescribe the strictest possible regulations; the pedestrian should be compelled to wear two fenders, one before and one after; he should be forced to carry head and tail lights and also a tag with a number thereon in plain figures, such number to be registered at police headquarters; and he should be provided with a horn which will give a loud, clear not so that express wagons and freight trucks may have plenty of warning and ample time to get out of the way.

The public must be protected at all hazards; and the pedestrian must learn that vehicles have the same right on the street and the same right to protection as himself.

Albuquerque Evening Herald, June 19, 1912, page 4.

But while many people, presumably walkers, bemoaned the loss of freedom, other cities with high-volume automobile traffic soon followed suit:

Motorists Interested in New Regulation.

Washington motorists are much interested in a new ordinance recently put into effect in Kansas City, Mo., which enables the police to control pedestrians in the town district the same as they do the drivers of motor cars and other vehicles.

Visitors to Kansas City are surprised to find themselves hailed by a crossing patrolman for cutting corners.  In Kansas City the walker must follow the sidewalk, and those that do not are told that if they are caught doing the same thing over they will be taken to the police station and fined.  There is a penalty of $5 to $50 for this offense.  This new law has been in force for the past month, and has proven very satisfactory.  The chief advantage of the new law is that it makes it much safer for the driver of any kind of a vehicle.  There is no congestion around the main corners, and visitors marvel at the ease with which the traffic squad handles the traffic.

New York is giving serious consideration to controlling the pedestrians, while in Chicago an ordinance with this end in view is in course of preparation, it is declared.

The Washington (DC) Times, June 1, 1912, Final Edition, page 10.

Washington DC enacted its own “jay-walker” laws by 1913:

 “Jay-Walker” Rules Made in Washington. 

Traffic regulations just decreed by the commissioners of the District of Columbia should be studied by politicians, pleasure seekers, patriots and others who are planning to visit Washington.

The new rules are in line with those adopted some time ago by several western cities and are designed to suppress the so-called “jay-walker.”  These new rules regulate the pedestrian, and if similar measures were enforced in Salt Lake and other cities it would tend to minimize the danger attendant on traffic.

Pedestrians in Washington are now forbidden to cross a street except at a corner, to walk in the street except at a corner, or to cross the street diagonally.

“The roadbeds of highways and streets,” say the new rules, “are primarily intended for vehicles,” and while drivers “must exercise all possible care,” pedestrians must not “needlessly interfere with the passage of vehicles or walks or sidewalks in such a manner as to “obstruct their free use by others” is prohibited. 

It requires the enforcement of rigid rules to protect the “jay-walker” from his self-made peril.

The Salt Lake Tribune, March 23, 1913, Second News Section, page 21.

Earlier Use of “Jay-Walker”.

Although the word, and the crime of, “jay walking,” first gained notoriety, and came into widespread use, in the wake of Kansas City’s pedestrian ordinance of 1912, the expression had been used before 1912.  Peter Norton, the author of Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City (MIT Press, 2008), has identified at least two earlier uses; a cartoon ridiculing “jay walkers,” from the Kansas City Star (April 1911), and a brief item that appeared in the Chicago Tribune (April 7, 1909):

Chauffeurs assert with some bitterness that their ‘joy riding’ would harm nobody if there were not so much jay walking.”

At the time, the word “jay” was a common synonym of rube, rustic, or hayseed – a country bumpkin.[i]  The word was considered insulting, and could be used as a noun, an adjective, and ultimately an adverb.  A person could be a “jay rube,” they could be “jay,” a backwards town could be a “jay town.”  “Jay-walker” would have been a natural, literal use of the word “jay” to describe an unsophisticated pedestrian.

Roanoke Times - May 30 1894

Although the expression, “jay-walker,” would have been understood in 1909 to have the same meaning ascribed to it in Kansas City by 1911, the few appearances of the word in print may suggest that the word was not idiomatic, but merely one of several possible, literal descriptions of a dangerous pedestrian.  The writer of the Chicago article may have used, “jay walking,” to play off the expression, “joy riding,” used earlier in the same sentence.

The choice of those specific words, in Kansas City, Missouri, however, may have been intended as a pun, of sorts; influenced by a cross-border rivalry with Kansas.  Kansas and Missouri had been rivals since the Border War of the 1850s, when pro-slavery “Border Ruffians” from Missouri battled free-soil toughs from Kansas.  Those Kansas toughs were known as – “Jay Hawkers.”

Writers in 1912 picked up on the word-play; presumably the Kansas City lawmakers could have been just as clever:

These pedestrians at whom the law is aimed, who recklessly jeopardize the lives and limbs of the law-abiding public, are characterized by the ordinance as “jay-walkers,” probably partly to distinguish them from the Kansas jayhawkers across the river. 

Albuquerque Evening Herald, June 19, 1912, page 4.

The name probably was suggested by Kansas City’s intimate acquaintance with a certain animal known to science as a “jayhawker,” but on this point the authorities are silent.

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), April 26, 1912, last edition, page 10. 

A related expression, that pre-dates the earliest-known uses of “jay walker,” may also have influenced the choice of words – the “Jay Driver” terrorized the Southwest for years before jaywalkers were deemed to be the problem. 

The Guthrie (Oklahoma) Daily Leader, October 22, 1907.

Jay Drivers

If a bad walker is a “jay walker,” then wouldn’t a bad driver be a “jay driver”?  As it turns out, the answer is yes.  Before 1912, when the emphasis was on restricting or controlling the behavior of drivers, the term, “jay driver,” appeared in print dozens of times.  All of the examples of the phrase that I have found all come from the corridor from Southern California, through New Mexico, Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska; suggesting that it may have been somewhat of a regionalism (if not indicative of some procedural error or limitation of my searches – perish the thought). 

The earliest appearance of “Jay driver” that I could find is from Kansas, again, in 1905.  It is not clear whether the “drivers” are necessarily automobile drivers, or drivers, generally, including the drivers of horse-drawn vehicles:

I think that “Close Observer” is one of those jay drivers who goes plugging along in the same old ruts and mud holes, and spends most of his time in observing, but does not observe that when an obstruction has been placed in the road it is for the purpose of getting the jay drivers to drive to one side so as to make a new track, and save the roads.

Baxter Springs News (Baxter Springs, Kansas), September 21, 1905, page 4, column 2;

I asked him what those rocks were in the road for.  He said to keep the jay drivers from wearing the road all in one place.  I asked him why he had not burned the brush that lay on the side of the road.  He said, “it’s none of your dam business.”

Baxter Springs News, October 5, 1905, page 5, column 1.

An article in the Los Angeles Herald, from late-1905, however, is expressly aimed at all drivers of all “wagons, carriages, wheels [(bicycles)], and autos.”  People who have driven through downtown LA recently, may recognize that some things remain the same:

One of the most prolific causes of accidents in the busy streets of Los Angeles is the “jay” driver.  He is especially a nuisance in this city right now, as the crowded tourist season comes on, and measures should be taken to suppress him.

There are certain well defined rules of the road that prevail all over the United States and are as fundamental as the common laws.  It requires that teams meeting shall pass to the right.  Teams overtaking shall pass on the left side.  A team shall be hitched facing the way it would drive, with the right side to the curb.  Corners must not be “cut,” but be taken at a full swing.  And traffic at crossings must pass and repass by turns. 

Every driver knows, or should know these rules.  An observance of them keeps traffic moving orderly in the most crowded streets in the world.  They are disregarded every minute of the day in Los Angeles, and no one pretends to enforce their observance.  The driver is a law into himself; he goes in either direction on either side of the busiest street, and he cuts and crosses at his own sweet will.  As a result, rows and clashes are continual, and collisions, with serious results, are inevitable. 

Los Angeles has a “traffic squad” of policemen, who stand on the downtown corners, supposedly to keep the order of the road.  So far as regulating traffic is concerned, they might as well be wooden Indians.  They are highly ornamental, but they do nothing to keep the several streams of teams moving unobstructedly in their proper channels.  Wagons, carriages, wheels and autos drive indiscriminately about, and the only effect on the policemen is to keep them awake sufficiently to dodge death, the same as pedestrians must do.

It would be a simple matter to regulate the “jay” driver.  The power rests in Chief Auble and his traffic squad.  The chief should see that his ornamental policemen get busy as well, and that they take a hand in sorting out the traffic and keeping it moving properly, safely, and sanely.  The congestion that now often marks Main, Spring and Broadway and the cross streets could be materially lessened, the number of accidents could be considerably cut down and the safety of pedestrians, especially strangers, would be vastly increased, at no cost except a little work and intelligence on the part of men now chiefly poseurs.

Other cities do this – Paris, London, New York, even San Francisco, Los Angeles can and should. 

Los Angeles Herald, December 15, 1905, page 6, column 2.

Albuquerque Evening Citizen - June 27, 1907

Albuquerque also had a “jay driver” problem.  The various uses of “jay,” throughout the articles, illustrate how the word was used, and understood, at the time.  You can also get a sense of the problems encountered when cars, horses and people first vied with one another on the mean streets of Albuquerque:

Albuquerque is not a jay city.   In fact, we are a good many years in advance of times in the southwest and more up to date than any city of our size in the United States.  At the same time there is one jay feature in Albuquerque which is annoying, dangerous and unnecessary.

During the cool summer evenings, the streets of Albuquerque are alive with carriages, autos and saddle horses.  Almost invariably drivers will be found with their rigs or autos on the wrong side of the street.  Endless confusion results and the few drivers who do know how to drive are put to no end of trouble to avoid collisions with jay drivers. . . .

A well known Albuquerquean said last night: “The habit of jay driving is growing until it is becoming a nuisance.  The other evening, one of these careless drivers on the wrong side of the street ran squarely into my horse and the animal almost threw myself and wife from the carriage in an effort to get away.  Our carriage was forced among several young trees near the curbing and they were badly damaged.  I was on the right side of the street; the jay driver was on the wrong.  I so informed him and he said that a street was public property and he would drive on whatever side he so desired.  I have since looked the matter up.  There is a strong city ordinance covering this matter and it should be called to the attention of the police.  Jay driving gives a city the appearance of a country town quicker than anything else I know. There is no excuse for jay driving here.  Our streets are wide and there is plenty of room for every vehicle, auto and saddle horse to remain on the right side.  The city ordinance against jay driving should be enforced.

Albuquerque Evening Citizen (New Mexico), June 27, 1907, page 4, column 1.

“Jay drivers,” not “jay walkers,” were seen as the problem in Albuquerque, in part, because pedestrians seem to have had the right-of-way.  The term, “jay drivers,” as used in Albuquerque, also seems to have encompassed both horse drivers and automobile drivers:

Jay Drivers Imperil Life Each Hour in Albuquerque
City Ordinances Disregarded and People are Constantly Endangered by Recklessness.

The number of jay drivers on the streets of Albuquerque seems to be on the increase.  What has become of the courtesy of the road in Albuquerque? . . . .
Horses are not only driven at a speed prohibited in the city ordinances, but the right of way which is due pedestrians, is utterly ignored.  Vehicles are driven across the streets in the most crowded places regardless of the inconvenience to other drivers or pedestrians.  Teams are turned about in the middle of the street and as for keeping to the right, it would seem that a large number of drivers did not known their right from their left.  Every day women and children are forced to scurry to the sidewalks to escape being run over by reckless or unheedful driving.

Albuquerque Evening Citizen, June 29, 1907, page 2, column 6.

Albuquerque Evening Citizen - June 29, 1907

When cars were new, the “jay” driver was seen as the problem.  But as people became more familiar with the new rules of the road, and as the number of motorized vehicles increased, attention turned to regulating pedestrians.  It became clear that “jay” pedestrians could pose just as much of a hazard as “jay” drivers:

Getting The Jays.  Official care has been taken of the jay driver.  Now get the jay walker.

The Guthrie Daily Leader (Guthrie, Oklahoma), October 22, 1907, page 4.

But despite the early recognition of the problem, and the early use of the word, it took nearly five more years for Kansas City to pass the first-ever anti-jaywalking law, and to introduce the word "jay walker" on a wide scale.

During the intervening years, cities and towns grappled with how best to keep the roads safe.  There seems to have been a campaign, in Oklahoma, at least, to educate “jay” drivers to follow all those pesky, new, rules of the road – like driving on the right side of the road:

After “Jay” Drivers.

Chief Garrett Says Driers of Vehicles Must Obey the “Rules of the Road.”
Are you a “jay” driver?  If so, you had better begin to look up “the rules of the road,” and hereafter drive on the right side.

The Daily Ardmoreite, July 1, 1909, page 5, column 5;

The Daily Ardmoreite (Ardmore, Oklahoma) - July 1, 1909

Rules Proposed for Motor Car Drivers.

Right Driving Campaign Started for Education of Jay Drivers.

. . . An automobile, even when passing a vehicle ahead, shall keep to the right and as near the righthand curb as practicable.

The Guthrie Daily Leader, September 13, 1909, page 4, column 4.

Guthrie (Oklahoma) Daily Leader - September 13, 1909

Omaha, Nebraska was dealing with similar issues, but their initial solution sounds a bit more complicated, at least as reported in the local newspaper – I’m not sure that the writer knew his left from his right:

Ordinance 6029 provides that all drivers of vehicles, drawn by horse or propelled by power, shall keep to the right hand side of the street going west or south and to the left side of the street going east or north. The intent was to prevent “jay” drivers or “joy riders” from creating confusion and endangering foot passengers and other drivers at crossings and on crowded streets.

Omaha Daily Bee, January 9, 1910, Editorial Section, page 15, column 6.

Omaha Daily Bee - January 8, 1910

Omaha’s efforts to curb traffic problems were also hampered by a “jay” driving city councilman.  In 1907, Councilman Elsasser introduced a resolution to stop enforcement of the new traffic rules, which had only been in effect since 1905.  He introduced the legislation after being arrested for driving:

. . . persistently along the left side of the street and cut[ting] corners to suit himself.  In court he maintained that it was his right to drive as he pleased.

Omaha Daily Bee, January 8, 1910, page 4, and January 9, 1910, Editorial Section, page 15.

Omaha Daily Bee - January 9, 1910

Although the resolution would ultimately be found to have been illegal, and unenforceable, it passed.  As a result, the Omaha police were effectively stopped police enforcement of the traffic laws for three years, until the issue came up in court, and the ordinance was again given the force of law.

With such unrepentant, pedestrian-centric lawmakers in power in Omaha (and presumably many other cities as well), change was slow to come.  It took two more years, and a one hundred and eighty mile detour south, to Kansas City. 

Joy Riders

Another concept ushered in by the introduction of automobiles to city streets was “joy riding.”  Although “joy riding” often involved “jay” driving, “joy riding” generally had a specific meaning, similar to the meaning it still has today.  Merriam-Webster online defines a joyride as, “a ride taken for pleasure (as in a car or aircraft); especially: an automobile ride marked by reckless driving (as in a stolen car).  

When the term, “joy ride” first emerged in about 1907, it often referred to drivers who borrowed their employers’ cars overnight:

Automobile owners of California are much interested in a decision recently made by Superior Judge B. V. Sargent of Monterey county [(California)], affirming the constitutionality of an act passed by the State Legislature in 1905 relating to the use of an automobile without the consent of the owner.  A chauffeur was prosecuted criminally in the Justice’s court at Pajaro for taking his employer’s car out without permission.  He was convicted and then appealed to the Superior Court on the ground that the statute did not apply to a chauffeur but was intended only for application in the case of a person in no way connected with the owner of the car.  Judge Sargent, however, holds that the statute is enforceable against any person not the owner of the car used and dismissed the appeal.  This is the first time that the question has been raised and Judge Sargent’s decision has established a precedent that will be a great help in curbing the “joy ride” practice among chauffeurs.

The Sun (New York), January 29, 1907, page 8, column 5.

Similar “joy riding” cost the city of New York thousands of dollars in the first few years of the city government’s car acquisition program, which began in 1903:

New York Tribune - September 29, 1907

The municipal “joy rider” is responsible for the destruction of more city cars than have ever been worn out in legitimate service.

So universal has this abuse become that a prominent city official informed a Tribune reporter that he was willing to wager that 90 per cent of the cars owned by the city could have been found any fine evening down at the recent Mardi Gras at Coney Island. . . .

Of course, a chauffeur who has been out all night with a party of “joy riders” is in no shape for work next morning.  And neither is his car, after having been raced home in the small hours of the morning more often than not upon soft tires by a sleepy driver.  The chauffeur does not mind these nocturnal excursions, became he usually receives a handsome tip from the “joy riders” that helps to swell his $1,200 a year salary from the city.  Besides, his chief would not be mad enough to expect him to get to work early next morning after being out all night with a party of somebody’s friends.

New York Tribune, September 29, 1907, page 3, column 3.

New York Tribune - September 29, 1907

But the expression was also used in association with perfectly legal pleasure excursions:

His summer boarders take “joy rides,” and as these rides are not included in the board, he nets quite a tiny sum from them.  Doing similar work for his neighbors has made a little fortune for him, and he is now contemplating buying a car of higher horsepower.

The Washington Times, July 31, 1907, last edition, page 4, column 1.

The San Francisco Call published a full-page spread, detailing the various types of “joy riders,” and describing their nefarious methods of securing free rides or borrowing cars. 

The San Francisco Call - October 6 1907
The San Francisco Call - October 6 1907

The Spokane Press (Spokane, Washington), September 9, 1909, page 4.

Another aspect of the new technology that people had to learn to live with was the sometimes excessive speed of emergency vehicles through town:

The Tacoma Times - November 12, 1914

Although the early appearances of the words, “jay driver,” were all confined to the Southwest, the word, “jay,” was not regionally limited to the Southwest.  The word “jay,” denoting a rustic, or rusticity, was known and used across the entire country; and had been since 1884.

Jay Town - The Origins of “Jay”

The word, “jay,” has not always meant, a country “jay.”  The earliest use of the rustic sense of “jay” listed in the American Heritage Dictionary of Slang, is a pun, at the expense of widely reviled financier, Jay Gould, who had once tried to corner the gold market: 

1884 Dougherty Stump Speaker 12: They said he was a Jay.  If he was such a Jay how did he get all the Gould?” 

The earliest appearance that I found is also from 1884; early January, 1884, but it may have appeared a bit earlier.  The word was used in an article, credited to the New York Times, explaining the meaning of the show-biz expression, “Jay town.”  The article explains the meaning of the word, as though the writer believed that the expression was unfamiliar to most readers. 

It is therefore unclear whether the word, “jay,” had already attained currency outside of show-business, or whether the article marks the moment when the expression broke out of its niche sub-culture of origin.  In either case, the publication of the article in the cultural center of the country, New York City, and reprinting of the article in newspapers in remote sections of the country, may have helped the word achieve a wider level of recognition that it may not have previously enjoyed:

A “Jay Town.”

New York Times.  A great deal of success of a traveling theatrical company depends upon the manner in which its route is laid out, the endeavor always being to bring the distances to be traveled down to the shortest point, in order to reduce railway fares as much as possible.  To this end it is always attempted to avoid doubling on the trail, so to speak, and the canceling of a week’s time often causes a very large additional outlay, and generally produces a corresponding shrinkage of receipts.   In desirable cities the theatrical dates are filled long in advance, and when a manager, for one reason or another, suddenly changes his arrangements, he finds it difficult to secure open time excepting in what are known in the professional vocabulary as “jay” towns.  A “jay” town, it may be explained to the unversed reader, is a community where unappreciative ignorance prevails, and where business is consequently pretty bad.

Daily Globe (St. Paul, Minnesota), January 3, 1884, page 3, column 6; The Sedalia Weekly Bazoo (Sedalia, Missouri), January 15, 1885, page 7, column 2.

Although the article explains what a “jay” town is, it does not clearly explain the derivation of the word.  However, the beginning of the article contrasts a “jay” town with more convenient, regular stops, which are presumably larger towns.  A “jay town” requires a “doubling on the trail, so to speak,” whereas non-“jay” towns “bring the distances to be traveled down to the shortest point.”  This may suggest that the word “jay” is a reference, at least in part, to the shape of the letter “J”.    

But the end of the article defines a “jay” town as a “community where unappreciative ignorance prevails,” which may suggest that the word, “jay,” is a reference to a small-town swell and an allusion to the jay in Aesop’s fable, The Jay and the Peacock.   A country swell, dressed up for the theater, may still be perceived as just a country bumpkin; just as Aesop’s jay was still just a “jay dressed up in peacock feathers.”[ii]  Perhaps the word caught on in show business because it resonated on both levels.

The expression may also have resonated for a third reason.  Long before “jay” was a rustic rube, the expression, “country Jake,” was a common expression used to denote a country bumpkin:

Well, you’re a pooty looking country jake, you are, to advertise for a dog, and don’t know a Chiney terrier from a singed possum?

Cooper’s Clarksburg Register (Clarksburg, Virginia), November 7, 1856, page 1, column 2.

But maybe you’ve been to college, (‘most every “county jake” has, for a session, at least,) and there learned that it is woman’s lawful and inalienable right to chase the cows out of the corn and pick the apples.

Belmont Chronicle (St. Clairsville, Ohio, September 10, 1857, page 3, column 3.

We have seen country jakes fully as smart as nice little fellows from the Metropolis.  How some people do “swell.”

Rock Island Argus (Rock Island, Illinois), July 18, 1871, page 4, column 2.

“Country Jake” was still in use in 1883, just before “jay” first appeared in print:

“There comes a ‘country Jake’ up the street.  Let’s initiate him,” said a couple of “dudes” the other day.

The Democratic Press (Ravenna, Ohio), October 18, 1883, page 2, column 3.

The two expressions even overlapped after 1884, as shown in an article about showgirls at the Minnesota State Fair:

The way they guy the dudes and smitten country jakes, makes one’s hair stand on ends.  Look at No. 13 there.  She has a very sweet, innocent face, but delights in smiling at those jays merely to gather a large following.

St. Paul Daily Globe, April 2, 1888, page 2, column 2.

The word “jay” frequently appeared in print as part of the expression, “country jay,” which was essentially equivalent to “country jake.”  “Country jay” and “country Jake” were both still in use in the early 1900s; and “Country Jay” was the name of a famous racehorse in the early 1900s.  Even if the word, “jay,” was not derived directly from “country Jake” alone, it seems plausible that “country Jake” could have been a factor in the emergence of the new sense of “jay” in 1884.

The word “jay” is attested as early as 1881, but not in the same sense as a rube or country bumpkin. In an article about actors' slang, “jay” was used as an example of an insult one actor might use to disparage another:

If this representative of the burnt cork branch of the business [(black-face minstrel)] desired to express his contempt for "Gilhooly and McGinnis, Ireland's peerless characterizationists," he would wither the peerless pair by calling them "jays," or "chumps," or "duffers," or "ranks," or perhaps "hams."

Los Angeles Herald, August 13, 1881, page 2, column 3.

Regardless of the precise origin, “Jay” quickly became a universally known insult, connoting ignorance or low-brow tastes.  The stage was set for “jay” driving and “jay” walking.  The only thing missing at the time were automobiles.  They came later.


“Jay” walking, was used on at least a few occasions before it appeared in Kansas City in 1911, and went viral in 1912.  It is unclear whether those early uses reflect that the phrase had already become idiomatic, or whether they are just isolated instances of people making the natural, literal assertion that some walkers were “jay.”  When Kansas City used the word in its first anti-jaywalking ordinance, it may have been chosen, in part, as a dig at their cross-border rivals in Kansas.  At least that is how it was perceived by some observers at the time.

But the now extinct expression, “jay driver,” is even older, dating to at least as early as 1905.  All of the pre-1912 examples of “jay driver,” that I found, were all from the southwest quadrant of the United States, suggesting that the term may have been a regionalism.  But after 1912, possibly influenced by the now well-known expression, “jay-walking,” “jay” driving became a common expression used everywhere.  “Jay driving” was still in use in the 1930s; it shows up several times in searches of the New York Times Archives for the 1930s.

The word, “Jay,” the foundation of both “jaywalking” and “jay driving,” appears to have been popularized in about 1884.  It may have come from the show-biz term for out-of-the-way places with unappreciative audiences.  Perhaps from the “J” travelled when scheduling such a town, perhaps from “Jay,” as in a jay dressed up in peacock feathers, and perhaps as a corruption, or streamlining, of “country Jake.”

    Rock, Chalk, Jay-Walk!!!!

[i] Smiting the Hand that Feeds, Part II – Why There is an Away-from-the-Farm Movement, Hugh Irish, Colliers, Volume 50, Number 18, January 18, 1913, page 26 (Glance at the glossary of epithets with which the farmer is cheered on his easeful, rose-studded way while doing the work that nobody else on erth deigns to do: Hayseed, Clodhopper, Rube, Jay, Hey-Rube, Farmer John, Country Jake, Rutabaga Delegate, Alfalfa Member, Turnip Shepherd, Rustic, Rural Swain, Our Friend from the Back Counties, Whiskerino, Uncle.
[ii] Ascott R. Hope Moncrieff, A Book About Dominies [(Scottish schoolmaster)]: Being the Reflections and Recollections of a Member of the Profession, Edinburgh, W. P. Nimmo, 1871, page 184 (For he is a jay in peacock’s feathers, a grocer’s shop-boy most likely, aping the folly of superior fools.  What a magnificent strut he has . . . .); The Cambria Freeman, Ebensburg, Pennsylvania, August 18, 1882, page 1, column 6 (A Cuban noble is a contemptible individual who is generally of humble origin . . . .  [T]o oil his vanity, he purchased a title of the Spanish government, usually count or marquis, and struts about like a jay in peacock’s feathers.).