For a word that is so firmly a part of American slang, the term “paddy wagon”—sometimes spelled as one word, “paddywagon”—has a surprisingly checkered history.
You know what it means. It’s a police wagon, and you don’t want to end up in the back of one. Over 100 contemporary songs have used the word, according to Genius.com, by artists ranging from TLC to the Red Hot Chili Peppers to Will Smith, Kendrick Lamar and Meek Mill. Hell, Martin Luther King Jr. even used it in his monumental “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, the last he ever gave before being assassinated.
The trouble is that, depending who you ask, the term is an anti-Irish slur, born from a time where the Irish were discriminated against in the U.S.
There are generally two camps of thought about where the term comes from, and both have to do with encounters with the police. The difference is whether the Irish were the ones being arrested or the ones doing the arresting.
In the Oxford Dictionary, the term “paddy wagon” is said to have appeared in the 1930s, “perhaps because formerly many American police officers were of Irish descent.” The word comes from the phrase “Paddy,” it says, which that same dictionary acknowledges is slang for an Irishman—chiefly used in a derogatory way.
The second theory goes back further, to the 1840s and 1850s, when according to some accounts the majority of people being transported by police were poverty-stricken Irish Americans acting out against their destitute conditions.
Here’s where some of the confusion begins: the term “Paddy” has not always been derogatory. In fact, the Irish have historically used the term to describe themselves, with it only becoming a slur when it was co-opted by others.
The first usage of the word that I can find dates back to 1798, to an anti-British folksong, claiming that the English, who were occupying the island, were hanging the Irish for wearing green clothes. The song plays as a conversation between Irish exiles, and the word “Paddy” is used as a stand-in for all the Irish people.
The song was written at the same time the Oxford Dictionary says the phrase popped up as English slang—associated with the obsolete “paddywhack,” meaning an Irishman who likes to drink and brawl. (Yes, that English nursery rhyme appears to be riddled with injustice.)
In more contemporary history, the word “Paddy” was used in a pro-Irish Republican Army ballad during The Troubles, an ethno-nationalist conflict against the English that ended in the 1990s. The song “One Shot Paddy” celebrates an elite group of snipers who were known to kill English soldiers with a single shot.
But that speaks to how the term is used in the British Isles. In the Americas, the term took its own, harsher meaning.
During the late 1800s, following the Irish potato famine, large groups of the Irish began migrating to the U.S., with many settling in the New York City area. Despite the fact that scholars have attempted to cast doubt on the historical record, resentment and discrimination against the Irish was widespread, with businesses writing “No Irish Need Apply” in their job postings being the most prominent marker.
Being Irish around this time was tough, as depicted in the Martin Scorsese film Gangs of New York. So tough, in fact that it was damn near criminalized.
In a 1997 essay for City Journal, a New York-based literary magazine, author William J. Stern wrote about those times, including one theory as to the origin of the term “paddy wagon”:
Over half the people arrested in New York in the 1840s and 1850s were Irish, so that police vans were dubbed “paddy wagons” and episodes of mob violence in the streets were called “donnybrooks,” after a town in Ireland.
Death was everywhere. In 1854 one out of every 17 people in the sixth ward died. In Sweeney’s Shambles the rate was one out of five in a 22-month period. The death rate among Irish families in New York in the 1850s was 21 percent, while among non-Irish it was 3 percent. Life expectancy for New York’s Irish averaged under 40 years. Tuberculosis, which Bishop Hughes called the “natural death of the Irish immigrants,” was the leading cause of death, along with drink and violence.
The seething poverty understandably angered the Irish. The following decade, much of that anger was let out in what became known as the Draft Riots of 1863, an event which has widely been reported as the single largest civil disturbance in U.S. history.
In short: a draft for the northern side of the Civil War was instituted after President Abraham Lincoln made the Emancipation Proclamation. To escape the draft, residents could pay the equivalent of about $5,000 in today’s money to exempt themselves—money the Irish didn’t have. At the same time, the Democratic Party had “warned New York’s Irish and German residents to prepare for the emancipation of slaves and the resultant labor competition when southern blacks would supposedly flee north” after the war, reads the University of Chicago book In the Shadow of Slavery: African-Americans in New York City.
The result was four days of rioting and clashes with the military, with crowds largely made up of the Irish, according to New York Times accounts, resulting in about 120 dead. Much of that violence was directed at the city’s black population, with several blacks being lynched by the rioters.
It is broadly held that the term “paddy wagon” came from this disturbance, as large amounts of the Irish were arrested and taken away in horse wagons. The top-voted post in the crowdsourced Urban Dictionary takes this position, though another, lower-ranking post claims it comes from the “P.D. wagon”: the police department’s wagon.
The history of the term gets a little screwy around this point in time.
The Ford Model T, which was later named “The Car of the Century,” came onto the market in the early 1900s. People began calling them “paddy wagons,” and even up to today, some car collectors and model kit sellers insist on calling the cars “Ford Model T Paddy Wagons,” as if it was an official part of the name.
The T Models were manufactured between 1908 and 1927, suggesting that people started using it at least a bit before the 1930s, as the Oxford and Merriam Webster dictionaries claim.
The first time I was able to find “paddy wagon” used in a news account was a 1945 short wire story by The Associated Press, about a police wagon that was unable to get gasoline. In 1957, the New York Times appears to use the one-word version in a piece about French taxi drivers in New York, but it’s a little ambiguous because it comes at a line break, and it appears as “paddy-wagon.”
Two years later, in 1959, the paper again appears to use the one-word version, but it also appears at a line break (damn!). This time, though, it appears within quotations, in a piece about vintage cars. By its third appearance, in a 1963 story about the bombing of Martin Luther King Jr.’s brother’s home in Birmingham, Alabama, it appears as the two-word version, without quotations. From there out, the Times uses the term once every few years, up until 1988, when it was used in its one-word version, after which it essentially stopped.
The Associated Press Style Guide, a journalism bible, has no policy on the term, and uses it sparingly, though a 2015 story about police officers getting taught about civil rights did run the phrase.
In a 2007 post on Yelp, a user from Chicago asked: “I read ‘Paddy Wagon’ on a drink menu and thought that was an offensive term. Is it or was it?”
The response was mixed. Some said the term is harmless. Others relayed that the term is offensive, especially to older Irish-Americans:
In a recent story about Irish resilience in the New York Times, author Timothy Egan drew parallels to the way the Irish were treated in years past, and the way some groups are still being treated in the U.S.:
You remember those petty criminals stuffed into paddy wagons and filling the jails of New York City, when you hear Donald Trump call Mexicans rapists, criminals and horrible people. Substitute the world Mexican for Irish and you have the same language.
Yes, the word was italicized in the Times, marking it the fourth way it has appeared in the publication.
But aside from nitpicking at the way it is written, the point is that the term clearly still carries some baggage. In the 1990s, the Los Angeles Police Department developed a program to bring drunk people home on St. Patrick’s Day, with the stated purpose of stopping DUIs. For the program, officers loaded drunk people into a police wagon that they happily dubbed the “Paddy Wagon.” They even set up a phone number for people who needed to ask for rides: 1-800-80PADDY.
After a few years of running the program, the department was pressured into changing the name to “Party Wagon,” after local Irish residents complained.
“We received calls from groups in the Irish community,” then-LAPD commander told the Los Angeles Daily News at the time. “[They] said: ‘That’s really not a nice word.”