Paddy Wagon - Is This An Irish Racial Slur?

June 10, 2009
Written by Tom Leland in
Stereotypes & Labels
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Ten members of the local chapter of the Irish Heritage Club walk into a bar for a pint after their monthly meeting — no, this is not the beginning of an Irish joke. At some point, someone starts describing a barroom brawl they once witnessed, and tells how the police came and hauled a couple of guys off in the “paddy wagon.” While this may seem like typical talk over a few beers, some of the Irish folks may take offense at the term paddy wagon. Why would they be upset by the term paddy wagon? Is this a racial slur against the Irish?

Paddy wagon, which the American Heritage Dictionary defines as slang for “a van used by police for taking suspects into custody,” is known to be of American origin, though its etymology is disputed.

“Paddy” is a nickname for Padraig, the Gaelic form of Patrick, and was used to describe the Irish, to some extent derogatorily, when they began arriving in large numbers in the middle of the 19th century.

One theory about the phrase’s origin is that Irishmen were often arrested for drunkenness or disorderly conduct, and hauled to precincts in these wagons. The other theory is simply that at the time, a large percentage of the policemen making arrests and driving the wagons were Irish. In this context, Paddy may not have been derogatory; it could be compared to a term like “Haole,” which is used by Hawaiians to describe Caucasians, and can be contemptuous or merely descriptive.

Thomas Kelly, an acclaimed author of three books that draw heavily from the Irish-American experience, worked for many years in construction. He points out that a group’s sense of humor about itself varies somewhat according to social strata. “In construction, you never get a funny look telling an Irish joke to an Irishman. But tell the same joke at a wine and cheese party, and you’re a jerk,” he says.

But in truth, plenty of people of Irish heritage have a sense of humor about terms like paddy wagon. When film producer Sean Reilly was asked whether he was offended by paddy wagon, laughed and said “No, I don’t know any damn Mick who would mind it.”

It certainly seems to have long been a part of everyday discourse. In fact, in the last speech ever given by Martin Luther King, a man whose life was devoted to fighting prejudice and ethnic stereotypes, he twice used the phrase paddy wagon when recounting being arrested during civil rights demonstrations.

But then, one can’t always be sure when the phrase might offend. In 2005, C. Virginia Fields, a candidate for mayor of New York City, used the term and had to issue a public apology.

Stereotypes & Labels