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.