Final Word

Jaywalking for the birds – also in politics

Bird brain 001.jpg

We all know the jay walkers, dangerously dodging the traffic on busy streets. Likewise we could call a political speech, dodging the real issues, political jaywalking. 

 It turns out that the term comes from birds. It has nothing to do with the origin of ‘jail bird’, but we could also say “jaywalking is for the birds”, as in “it is a stupid thing to do”.

The Afrikaans translation for a jaywalker, although not commonly used, is ‘straatgans’, which directly translated back to English would be ‘street goose’. And here in the greater Cape Town with its many wetlands we are familiar with families of geese, sometimes waggling across busy roads.

 The term ‘jaywalker’ originated in the USA in the early 20th century on the heels of, so to speak, the appearance of motor vehicles on city streets. We actually first got a ‘jay driver’ as the first known use of ‘jay walker’ itself indicates.

 The Guthrie Daily Leader of Guthrie, Oklahoma in the USA, wrote in 1907: “Official care has been taken of the jay driver. Now get the jay walker.” The term ‘jay driver’, moving along with reckless disregard for other road users, dates back to at least 1905.                                                                                          

After 1912, when Kansas City became the first to enact a jaywalking law, it gained national recognition in the US with pro-automobile lobby groups starting to push for streets to be defined as spaces where pedestrians do not belong.

 Why ‘jay’?

 To call someone a ‘jay’, however, dates back much further and has nothing to do with the curve in the letter ‘j’.

 In the late 19th century ‘jay’ became a commonly used slang word to describe someone who was an idiot, dull, unsophisticated, poor, or a simpleton – often as a synonym for other terms like ‘rube,” used to describe “country bumpkins” regarded as stupid, unintelligent or just naïve in the urban environment.

 But to call someone, who is stupid and chattering, a ‘jay’ after the noisy chattering European birds of the genus Garrulus commonly known as jays, dates back to at least the 15th century.

 Birds are commonly regarded as stupid due to the size of their brains, hence the description of someone as ‘bird brained’.

 In the case of the American slang term ‘jay’ it is believed that it refers to the common blue jay.

 For the birds

Politicians engaging in political jaywalking, as we recently witnessed in the statement by the secretary general of the ANC, Gwede Mantashe, after the party’s latest National Executive Committee meeting, should maybe realise that the voters might regard such statements as ‘for the birds’.

 The expression ‘for the birds’ is generally regarded, especially by American sources, as having originated among American soldiers during World War II. But it is just possible that soldiers in mortal danger at the time spent a little more time with their Bibles.

 Before we go there, let’s first take a look at the meaning of the expression. Among the descriptions of its meaning we find: trivial; worthless; only of interest to the gullible; meaningless; drivel; nonsense; and irrelevant matter.

 Now, in the Bible (New International Version; 2001) we find the following passage in Isaiah 18:6 “They will all be left to the mountain birds of prey and the wild animals; the birds will feed on them all summer, the wild animals all winter.”

 There is a similar passage to be found in Jeremiah 16:4 and then in the New Testament’s Mark 4:4 in the “Parable of the Sower” we find the following passage: “As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up.”

 When it comes to the results of political jaywalking there is another American explanation of the origin of ‘for the birds’, which is very tempting to support.

 This explanation goes: “Before the advent of cars, one could see and smell the emissions of horse-drawn wagons in New York. Since there was no way of controlling these emissions, they – or the undigested oats in them – served to nourish a large population of English sparrows. If you said that something was for the birds, you're politely saying that it's horse crap.”

by Piet Coetzer

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