A plaque remaining from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem.

Above, a 1934 plaque from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem. Discarded as trash in 2006.

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Entry from December 17, 2004
Jaywalker (Jay Walker); Jaywalking (Jay Walking)
"Jay walking" (or "jaywalking") was first named and popularized in Kansas City, not New York. "Jay," according to the Historical Dictionary of American Slang, is "a stupid, gullible, or contemptible fellow; (also) a rustic; greenhorn." The "jay walk" is how this rustic would walk in a big city.

The first citation was printed in the Kansas City (MO) Star on October 20, 1905, "Now the 'Jay Walker'" by B.H.B.:

"As a great improvement has been recently made in regard to drivers of vehicles keeping to the right and now only occasionally a 'jay driver' is apprehended, would it not be of great advantage and convenience as well if pedestrians would make it a rule to keep to the right as much as possible? This custom is generally observed in all large cities and as Kansas City is becoming quite a metropolitan and growing city and, consequently, many of our downtown sidewalks are at times crowded with people, much annoyance would be obviated if people when meeting with others going in the opposite direction would keep to the right and avoid collisions and being called a "jay walker.'"

A "jay walker" would eventually mean someone who crossed in the middle of the street, or against a traffic light. The "jay" has nothing to do with the Kansas "jayhawk," or the letter "J."

"Jaywalking" is probably most popular today as a comedy segment on television's The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. It is not legal to "jaywalk" in New York City, but the law is usually not enforced.


Wikipedia: Jaywalking
Jaywalking occurs when a pedestrian walks in or crosses a roadway that has traffic, other than at a suitable crossing point, or otherwise in disregard of traffic rules. The term originated with "jay-drivers", people who drove horse-drawn carriages and automobiles on the wrong side of the road, before taking its current meaning.

The term "jaywalking" is primarily a North American concept where laws restrict pedestrian use of public roads. In other countries such as the United Kingdom, the word is not generally used and there are no laws limiting how pedestrians can use public highways.
(...)
Origin of the term
The word jaywalk is not historically neutral.[5] It 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).

20 October 1905, Kansas City (MO) Star, "Communications," pg. 10, col. 2:
Now the "Jay Walker."
To The Star: As a great improvement has been recently made in regard to drivers of vehicles keeping to the right and now only occasionally a "jay driver" is apprehended, would it not be of great advantage and convenience as well if pedestrians would make it a rule to keep to the right as much as possible? This custom is generally observed in all large cities and as Kansas City is becoming quite a metropolitan and growing city and, consequently, many of our downtown sidewalks are at times crowded with people, much annoyance would be obviated if people when meeting with others going in the opposite direction would keep to the right and avoid collisions and being called a "jay walker." There is room for much reform in this direction here in Kansas City.
B. H. B.

7 April 1906, Kansas City (MO) Star, pg. 1, col. 4:
THE "JAY WALKER" THIS TIME.
A Man Who "Cut Corners" Ran Into Another on the Sidewalk.

9 April 1906, Kansas City (MO) Star, "Starbeams," pg. 6, col. 7:
However, the "jay walker" who is being censured should not be confused with his estimable brother, the Jayhawker.

22 August 1906, Kansas City (MO) Star, "Communications," pg. 8, col. 2:
Where Junk Obstructs Sidewalks.
To The Star: Public sentiment seems to be against the jay driver, the jay walker and the jay waiter.
(...)
A CITIZEN.

31 July 1907, Kansas City (MO) Star, pg. 12, col. 5:
THE JAY WALKER ONCE MORE.
A Crossing Squad Man Complains of Flying Wedges on Sidewalks.

13 August 1907, The Salt Lake Evening Telegram (Salt Lake City, UT), "Town Pests," pg. 3, col. 4:
There's the jay walker, who insists on staying on the left side of the walk.

There's the jay driver, who turns to the left side of the street, and bumps into the man who drives carefully, thus imperiling life and limb.

22 October 1907, The Leader (Guthrie, OK), "Topics of the Town," pg. 5, col. 1:
Getting the Jays.
Official care has been taken of the jay driver. Now get the jay walker.

10 April 1908, Kansas City (MO) Times, pg. 6, col. 7:
THE JAY WALKER.
Nobody like a man who is always "butting in."

That's why the jay walker is so unpopular. He is continually butting into people.

23 February 1909, Wichita (KS) Beacon, pg. 4, col. 2:
The "jay walker" is going to get his as soon as we get the jay driver a little farther along.

15 May 1912, Oshkosh (WI) Daily Northwestern, pg. 9, col. 3:
"Jay Walking."
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 walk" 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. The Kansas City Star says of the new ordinance: "It is not so bad for Kansas City to be setting the pace in such matters, Incidentally, the police force, which is enforcing the ordinance with vigor and discretion, deserves a large share of the credit for ushering in the new regime of orderly traffic." - The Survey.

2 June 1912, Indianapolis (IN) Star, pg. 15, col. 1:
"JAY WALKING" HALTED
We were told by one of our visitors that the city of Kansas City, Mo., has an ordinance which makes it criminal to cross the streets at any other place than the regular prescribed crossings. In some way or other this habit is termed "jay walking" in that city and the "Auto Era" at Cleveland, O., speaks of it in these terms:

"'Jay walking' is not unknown in Cleveland. It includes in a broader sense not only the diagonal crossing of street intersection, but as well walking on the left hand side of the sidewalk, or pausing to hold converse in the middle thereof. These seem trifling subjects of legislation, yet they amount to a serious matter, a nuisance if not a menace."

2 October 1912, Atlanta (GA) Constitution, pg. 4:
JAY WALKERS MUST
MEND THEIR WAYS
Ordinance Will Be introduced
to Prevent Accidents
to Pedestrians
W. S. Witham, the well-known banker, has sent a communication to the city authorities asking that a law be passed to regulate the "jay walkers." He said that the jay walkers should be regulated as well as the autos and other vehicles.

2 December 1915, Atlanta (GA) Constitution, pg. 8:
Perhaps one of the worst traffic dangers of today is what it known as "jay walking." People cross the streets any and everywhere, without regard to traffic, darting in front of fast-moving motor vehicles, doodging horses and street cars, and even braving ambulances and fire apparatus with no satisfaction except the consciousness that "they did it," and then having plenty of time to turn and contemplate the danger they have escaped.

2 December 1915, New York (NY) Times, pg. 10:
Middle-Block Crossing Is Defended.
More than a little sympathy will be felt for the correspondent who expressed resentment yesterday at the official application of the word "jaywalkers" - a truly shocking name and highly opprobrious - to people who cross the city streets in the middle of blocks instead of at their ends.

That may be a bringing of rustic habit into the city, and, on general principles, that is not to be commended, since it usually indicated indifference to the unlikeness of rural and urban conditions. But a poproceeding is not necessarily "jay" because it is a country custom, and, as a matter of fact, city folk can give, and some of them do, a reason more than fairly good for crossing the streets where the police say they should not.
Posted by Barry Popik
New York CityWorkers/People • Friday, December 17, 2004 • Permalink