Where Did the Term Jaywalking Come From?
If you cross a street carelessly or anywhere other than at an intersection, you may be called a jaywalker. This old term comes from a time when the word, “jay,” was often used to describe a country person unaware of city ways (such as being uninformed of city traffic rules).
Lacking such experience, “jays,” or new comers to the city, often ignored pedestrian crossings. Instead, they crossed the street wherever it was convenient, without paying any attention to traffic regulations. This illegal, unsafe practice became known as “jaywalking.”
The word jaywalk is a compound word derived from the word jay, an inexperienced person and a curse word that originated in the early 1900s, and walk. No historical evidence supports an alternative folk etymology by which the word is traced to the letter “J” (characterizing the route a jaywalker might follow).
In towns in the American Midwest in the early 20th century, “jay” was a synonym for “rube”, a pejorative term for a rural resident, assumed by many urbanites to be stupid, slightly unintelligent, or perhaps simply naïve. Such a person did not know to keep out of the way of other pedestrians and speeding automobiles.
Originally, the legal rule was that “all persons have an equal right in the highway, and that in exercising the right each shall take due care not to injure other users of the way.” In time, however, streets became the province of motorized traffic, both practically and legally.
Automobile interests in the USA took up the cause of labeling and scorning jaywalkers in the 1910s and early 1920s; a counter-campaign to name (and disapprove of) “jay drivers” failed.
Jaywalking occurs when a pedestrian crosses a roadway where regulations do not permit doing so. Examples include a pedestrian crossing between intersections without yielding to drivers and starting to cross a crosswalk at a signalized intersection without waiting for a permissive indication to be displayed.