paddy wagon

A “paddy wagon” is a police van.

Early police vans were horse-drawn carriages, the carriage being in the form of a secure prison cell. Later, secure motorized police vans were built in case the prisoner attacked the officers during the journey. To prevent this, police vans were designed with a fixed steel cage in the rear of the vehicle effectively separating the prisoner from the officers.

The precise origin of the term is uncertain and disputed, though its use dates back to the 1800s. There are three theories as to how the term originated.

One theory holds that “paddy wagon” was simply a shortening of “patrol wagon.”

The second theory has to do with the Irish immigrants in the eastern US. “Paddy” was a common Irish shortening of Padraig, (Patrick in English), which was most often used in the 1800s as an ethnic slur to refer to Irish people. 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.

A possible third theory is listed by The English Oxford Dictionary, which states that the term “paddy wagon” appeared in the 1930s, “perhaps because formerly many American police officers were of Irish descent.”

The term “Paddy” has not always been derogatory. The Irish have historically used the term to describe themselves, with it becoming a slur only when it was co-opted by others. The first apparent usage of the word in print is dated 1798. 

If I’m ever in a paddy wagon, I hope I’m the one driving.

  One thought on “paddy wagon

  1. Leanne Taylor
    February 14, 2022 at 3:43 am

    I’m with you!

    Liked by 1 person

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