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Professor confesses: "I'm a jaywalker"

University of Michigan English Professor Ann Curzan has a confession.

"I witness jaywalking on campus all the time and participate in the practice myself. I'm an impatient pedestrian," she admits. "When I lived in Seattle it was very difficult for me, because in Seattle people really do obey the crosswalks, but I struggled."

She'd never thought about where the word "jaywalking" came from until a friend's daughter asked about it.

"I found out it takes us back to another great word, that I hope we’ll be able to revive," she says. "It goes back to jay driver, and that shows up early 20th century, in a citation from 1905 in Kansas. Jay drivers were people who drove on the wrong side of the road," Curzan says.

"That’s when we’re starting to see more automobiles on the road; we didn’t even have stoplights yet, and there was clearly a little bit of chaos. So you start to see this word regulating these folks who are not on the right side of the road in the U.S.

Jaywalker arrives shortly afterward: It’s a pedestrian who doesn’t stay on the right side of the sidewalk, and within 10 years, it comes to refer to people who cross the street outside of the crosswalk.

"From what we can tell, it goes back to the blue jay, the American jay," Curzan says. "It came to refer to a stupid person, a gullible person, a rube. So a jay driver was an idiot driver."

Today there are jay bikers, as well – people who ride their bicycle on the wrong side of the road.

Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.