Don’t call me a rube!

Jaywalking ~ an informal term used in North America to refer to illegal or reckless pedestrian crossing of a roadway

We’ve all seen it (and probably done it ourselves [yup, me too!])—someone crossing a street between intersections with little or no care for his own safety or for drivers who have the legal right-of-way. Just today, in fact, I had a couple of too-close-for-comfort encounters with pedestrians who were apparently willing to risk their physical wellbeing on whether or not I happened to be alert enough to notice their unexpected, darting attempts to cross roadways either against a light or, even worse, without even a glance to see if a vehicle might be headed for them!

My driving experiences notwithstanding, the point of this blog series is to learn the origin of terms like jaywalking. Here’s this week’s story:

It turns out that in the early part of the 20th century, the term “jay” was used in the American Midwest as a synonym for “rube” or “countrified,” indicating a person who was unfamiliar with city (or town) ways. Such a person would likely be unaware of how fast motorized vehicles could travel—at then unheard-of speeds of 15 to 20 miles per hour!—and how vulnerable a person might be if she attempted to cross a street in front of a fast-moving vehicle. In fact, in the musical Forty-five Minutes from Broadway, George M. Cohan commented on the difference in behavior between people who lived in New Rochelle, NY, then a relatively rural area, and those who were comfortable in a fast-paced, big city atmosphere.

The earliest printed use of the term “jaywalker” was likely in the Chicago Tribune in 1909 and may have been related to attempts by automobile promoters to redefine streets as places where vehicles had priority over pedestrians. At that time, common law was that the larger, heavier vehicle was considered at fault despite any pedestrian behavior that might have caused/contributed to the incident. Today, of course, traffic signals, pedestrian crossings, and a host of traffic statutes govern vehicle and pedestrian interactions but, sadly, that doesn’t always prevent catastrophic consequences of vehicle-on-person accidents.
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Posted for Jenny Matlock’s AlphabeThursday study of the letter “J.” For Round 5 of this long-running meme, I am focusing on colloquialisms and idioms—words and phrases that are unique to a region or have meanings that aren’t necessarily discernible from the combined meanings of the individual words.
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Sources for this post include:
Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins
The Invention of Jaywalking
Wikipedia ~ Jaywalking
Wikipedia ~ Forty-five Minutes from Broadway

12 thoughts on “Don’t call me a rube!

  1. I believe the term was coined around 1914 with the polarity of the professional baseball player Rube Waddell. He exemplified your definition.

  2. I must confess, I have been guilty of Jaywalking in the past…

    It is really scary when someone darts out in front of your car, especially a young kid…

    Very informative post for the letter “J”…

    Thanks for linking.


  3. I love your post! It is always fun to learn something new! Fast cars, higher speed limits and people willing to sacrifice themselves to get over to the other side of the road! It is such poor judgement!
    Have a good weekend!
    Grreat post!

  4. Yes, it is amazing how many sayings and phrases we use on a daily basis for which we have no idea of the original origin. Interesting essay, as always.

  5. Once again Wanda you have enlightened me, and made me smile. I do so enjoy the term or word of the week. It would seem your use of “rube” caused as much interest as explaining jaywalking. Maybe your next word has been choosen for you. As for jaywalking, it seems to me that there was actually a period when people paid attention when they crossed the street, but it didn’t last long. Maybe if they put more jaywalking stories on the local news instead of the “restaurant alerts! we would encounter less jaywalkers. Great Post!! — Bill

  6. Thanks for the background on the term ‘jaywalking’. Funny how often we used terms that we have no idea of origin. Great letter J post.!

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