Q: I assume the “jay” in “jaywalk” is derived from the bird so named, though I have never seen a jay cross a street, properly or otherwise. How did “jay” plus “walk” come to mean crossing a street unlawfully?
A: The “jay” of “jaywalk” can be traced to the common name of the Eurasian jay (Garrulus glandarius), but the word “jay” itself was originally a surname when it appeared in Middle English in the late 12th century.
As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, the English surname, which ultimately comes from gaius, Late Latin for a jay, is “probably echoic of the bird’s harsh warning cry and supposedly influenced by Latin Gaius, a common Roman proper name.”
The English surname is spelled “iai” in the earliest example we’ve found: “Peter le iai.” From an 1195 entry in the Exchequer’s Pipe Rolls, or financial records, for Cambridgeshire; cited in A Dictionary of English Surnames (3d ed., 1991), by P. H. Reaney and R. M. Wilson.
(The letter “j” didn’t become established in English until the 17th century, though it had been used earlier in place of “i” at the end of a numeral.)
In early 14th-century writing, the Middle English term was used for the Eurasian jay, a noisy and colorful bird common in Britain. The bird’s genus name (Garrulus) is Latin for garrulous; its species name (glandarius) refers to the acorns eaten or buried by the jay.
The OED’s earliest avian citation for “jay,” which we’ve expanded, is from the Harley Lyrics, a collection of religious and secular lyrics dated sometime before 1350. In this passage a jolly woman is compared to the garrulous jay:
“heo is dereworþe in day / graciouse stout ant gay / ientil iolyf so þe iay” (“She is precious in the day / gracious stately and gay / gentle jolly as the jay”).
Over the next few centuries, the use of the term “jay” widened to include many other noisy and colorful birds, such as the grey jay, green jay, Canada jay, blue jay, and so on.
Meanwhile, the OED says, figurative uses came along, and the term took on such senses as “an impertinent chatterer,” “a showy or flashy woman,” “a person absurdly dressed,” and “a stupid or silly person.”
The sense of stupid or silly, the dictionary adds, ultimately led to the use of “jay” in “jaywalker,” originally a rustic who didn’t know the proper way to cross a street. However, it took four centuries for that usage to arrive.
The first Oxford citation for “jay” used to mean a silly or stupid person is from A Goodly Garlande or Chapelet of Laurell (1523), a poem by John Skelton. In this excerpt, it refers to people who complain about things they can’t change:
“For the gyse [guise, or fashion] now adays / Of sum iangelyng iays [jangling, or babbling, jays] / Is to discommende / What they cannot amende.”
In the late 19th century, the noun “jay” came to mean “a stupid, gullible, or contemptible fellow; (also) a rustic; greenhorn” in the US, according to the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, edited by Jonathan Lighter.
The first Random House citation is a pun on the name of the financier Jay Gould, who tried to corner the market in gold: “They said he was a Jay. If he was such a Jay how did he get all the Gould?” (From Stump Speaker, 1884, by Hughey Dougherty.)
In the early 20th century, the terms “jay driver” and “jay walker” appeared in reference to people who drove on the wrong side of a street or walked on the wrong side of a sidewalk, according to a standard dictionary, Merriam-Webster.
M-W cites examples from Midwestern newspapers for both usages. Here’s an example from an article, headlined “The Jay Driver,” in the Junction City (KS) Union, June 28, 1905:
“Stop at the corner of any well traveled street in the business part of the city and see how many know how to drive—that is to keep to the right hand side of the street—and you will be astonished at the number who don’t know that this is the right way to do or who are careless in regard to the matter.”
And here’s a pedestrian example from an article, entitled “Now the ‘Jay Walker,’ ” in the Kansas City (MO) Star, Oct. 20, 1905: “Much annoyance would be obviated if people when meeting others going in the opposite direction would keep to the right and avoid collisions and being called a ‘jay walker.’ ”
Merriam-Webster adds that it’s “unclear why jaywalker shifted its meaning and survived for more than a hundred years now, while jay-driver languishes in obscurity.”
The OED says “jaywalker” now means “a pedestrian who crosses a street without regard to traffic regulations.” The dictionary’s first citation for this sense, which we’ve expanded, is from the June 1917 issue of Harper’s Magazine:
“The Bostonian, supposedly sesquipedalian of speech, has reduced ‘a pedestrian who crosses streets in disregard of traffic signals’ to the compact jaywalker.”
However, we’ve found this earlier example for “jaywalking” used similarly in the Abilene (TX) Daily Reporter, July 13, 1914:
“Down in Ft. Worth the city authorities have been working on a new traffic law for some time and have at last concluded their labors and on next Saturday the new law will become effective. What is known as jaywalking, crossing streets anywhere, will be prohibited.”
As for the verb “jaywalk,” the earliest example we’ve seen for it used in the sense of crossing a street improperly is from the Dec. 25, 1913, issue of Motor World, a trade magazine:
“Efforts to regulate the pedestrian in Peoria, Ill.—one of the first efforts of the sort in this country—failed miserably. When last week the wise and solemn city fathers considered a new ordinance, which, among other things, provided that ‘any pedestrian crossing street intersections at other than right angles to the sidewalks’ would be declared violating the law, they promptly eliminated the provision. The Peoria pedestrian, therefore, is free to ‘jaywalk’ to his heart’s content.”