Shashi Tharoor’s Word of the Week: Jaywalking
The zigzag journey of jaywalking... from ‘hicks’ who didn’t know better to pedestrians crossing the street while disregarding traffic rules
Jaywalking (noun), to cross the street against the traffic regulations, illegally, against a red light or in the middle of the street.
Usage: The Indian tourist was surprised to be arrested for jaywalking, when that was how he had been brought up to cross the road.
Whatever may be our political differences, all Indians have one thing in common: jaywalking. We are all inveterate jaywalkers. Traffic lights for pedestrians exist, but are universally ignored. Oddly enough, though, we don’t use the word for this practice – perhaps precisely because it is so common we didn’t feel we needed a special word for it.
The word jaywalker can be traced back to 1912, when it emerged in American English, derived, probably, from the bird of that name, the common blue jay. (The theory that the term jaywalking is derived from the shape of the letter “J” to describe the erratic path a jaywalker might travel when crossing a road, has been discredited, since jaywalkers can also walk straight, but do so when or where they are not supposed to).
“Jay” was an insulting term in colloquial English for a foolish chattering person back in the 1500s, and in the US was used to refer to a stupid, gullible, ignorant, or provincial person, a rustic, or simpleton. It seems city-dwellers assumed that those who crossed the roads when they weren’t supposed to had to be country bumpkins who didn’t know any better, hence “jaywalkers”. The connotation of “jay” was that it applied to a naïve individual, a “hick”, who didn’t know the ropes of modern, civilized, urban living.
In the early years of automobiles there was also the expression “jay drivers” for those who wandered about all over the road, causing confusion among other drivers and creating accidents. Strict rules, strictly enforced, about which side of the road one could drive on, put an end to jay driving. However, jaywalking has continued.
In the second decade of the 20th century the new term “jaywalkers” emerged, as city councils in the US began to pass ordinances to stop pedestrians crossing the street anywhere they wanted to. Apparently the rapid increase in motorised vehicular traffic made the adoption of such regulations necessary. The public was strongly in favour. One newspaper report from 1911 defines a jaywalker as “an alleged human being who crosses the street at other points than the regular crossings”. Another writes: “Jay Walker is aptly named – he remains unconvinced that traffic lights apply to pedestrians.” A 1937 New York Times article sneers, “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.”
Automobile companies popularly used this term in various anti-pedestrian advertising campaigns. For instance, John Hertz, president of Yellow Cab and the future founder of the country’s leading car rental firm, declared, “We fear the ‘jay walker’ worse than the anarchist, and Chicago is his native home.” The campaigns worked: in the US, the automobile companies won the right to use of roads and restrict pedestrian access to them. Jaywalking is a crime pretty much everywhere in the US, attracting severe fines.
There are laws against jaywalking in the US, Singapore, Poland, Serbia, Iran, Australia and New Zealand. However, in many countries in the world besides India, it’s perfectly legal to cross any road anywhere you like, whenever you judge it to be safe to do so. Ironically, many advocates argue that jaywalkers tend to be more careful when crossing the road than those who are crossing in officially designated crosswalks.
Still, even in the US, jaywalking is seen as referring to a relatively insignificant crime. As in, “compared to the man in the Oval Office, his principal rival has done little wrong, nothing more serious than jaywalking”.
However minor it may be, don’t try jaywalking in the US or Singapore. Ignorance of the law, the police in those countries insist, is no excuse. I know: I’ve been caught there.