“Paddy” (often used with “Paddy wagon”) is a racial slur for an Irish person just as “Nigger” is for a black person or “Kike” is for a Jew or “Chink” for a Chinese person, etc.., It comes from the drunk wagons that used to take those who were publicly drunk to jail to “sleep it off”, and it is incorrectly and widely believed that most of these alcohol abusers were Irish immigrants or their descendants.”

It just so happen someone used the word “Paddy wagon” on”Live from the Land of Hope & Dreams with Dave Marsh” on Sirius radio on November 20th as we talked about OWS arrest.  The term “Paddy” was quickly exposed as racist.  Then on Monday (21 November) one of the young protesters unknowingly used the word saying he was ready to be arrested and taken away in the “Paddy wagon.”  Many of the people around me at the protest commented on the nature of the word and our feeling that the young protester didn’t fully know the origin or meaning of the term.

Immediately after the event I posted a definition of the term on facebook (21 Nov. 11).  Below is the discussion thread on the word.  I felt the discussion was one that warranted saving and sharing.

Kwame Zulu Shabazz & Stephanie McCarthy did most of the heavy lifting.

Read thru the thread and you might just learn something new. FYI about some of the people on the thread – Shabazz is a Harvard Ph.D now teaching at Winston-Salem State University. Ms. McCarthy lives in Paris, where she has resided since 2001; and lived in France since 1999. She teach English as applied to the Humanities in a university in Paris.

Pamela Willis Watters hmmm….I had no idea! Thanks, Kevin

Miriam Harris really interesting–thank you.

Maria Holt Wow! Learn something from your page everyday…

Kevin Gray Yeah, it just so happen someone brought it up on the Sirius show yesterday as we talked about OWS arrest and tonite one of the young protesters unknowingly used the word.

Frank Moliterno Interesting.

Maria Holt Oh that’s def not a good look…(referring to young man’s gaff)

Kevin Gray Just young.

Kwame Zulu Shabazz Bro. Kev. I did a quick check on the etymology of “paddy wagon,” and there is actually not a consensus on its meaning. And, according to the source I read, PW likely originates from the fact that many police officers who drove police wagons were Irish.

If accurate, then PW is not derogatory. The derogatory use comes later when African Americans begin to use “paddy” to describe all whites, regardless of ethnicity. But, again, we should be clear that “paddy wagon” and “paddy,’ seem to have two different connotations–one neutral and the other bad.

My other quibble, is that whatever its meaning you seem to imply that paddy and nigger are equivalents–that calling an Irish person paddy is just like calling a black person nigger. But the history of the relative treatment of Africans and Irish people don’t bear that out. kzs

Quoting source:

//”Irishman,” 1780, slang, from the pet form of the common Irish proper name Patrick (Ir. Padraig). It was in use in black slang by 1946 for any “white person.” Paddy wagon is 1930, perhaps so called because many police officers were Irish.//


Online Etymology Dictionary

Bob Shanbrom Good call, Kevin.

James Armand Chionsini Jr. WOP for Italians used to mean ‘without papers’

Kwame Zulu Shabazz And its not exactly clear to me that the African American use of the term “paddy” was, in every instance, derogatory. It seems to me that it was/is often simply a variant of “white.” kzs

Kevin Gray ‎@Bro Kwame- Absolutely! Efia (Nwangaza) mentioned another thing to me tonite when the young man used the term (and he was speaking about being ready to be taken away in the “Paddy wagon”). She offered that many slave catchers were Irish. Hadn’t checked into that one yet. But certainly the term “negro-round-up” which today is the neighborhood sweeps via profiling has its roots in the history of the term.

Kwame Zulu Shabazz Yessir, in fact, last year, I posted something on “paddy wagon” songs and the link to slave catchers. I will see if I can dig it up. kzs

Kevin Gray Well, now, white is white, and race trumps class under white supremacy, so in that respect a black using the word during the time when such slang was part of the everyday vernacular may have been “flipping it” – [“you may be white but you’re just a paddy” just as -“you may be white but you’re just a po’cracker” which plays the class card.

Kwame Zulu Shabazz Yeah the songs im thinking of were called “patty rollers” another name, as you note, for slave patrols. Not exactly sure if it has any connection with the Irish but will check it out to tomorrow cuz it getting late. im in my office and i gotta…umm…roll :O)

Nick Jewitt Just to round off Kwame’s first post, the Patrick referred to is St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland so, like anything else, it can be misused, but I’m not sure that it’s necessarily an insult, being referred to by the same name as the saint. I’m interested to read of the wagon part, hadn’t heard it before, perhaps we don’t use it in connection with Irish on this side of the Pond, though “on the wagon” certainly is used to describe someone drunk, or getting drunk.

Stephanie McCarthy I really appreciate the above discussion. Thank you to Kevin and Kwame.

Something to bear in mind, if I may : many in the USA who consider themselves Irish are in fact descendants of the “Scots-Irish”, who are the Scottish & English colonists (English-speaking & Protestant only needed apply) that the English crown sent to Ireland in the 17th century to “settle” Irish lands, i.e. dispossess the Native Irish at gunpoint. It is interesting to note that these plantation policies were carried out simultaneously in Ireland and in America, in Jamestown, Virginia, for example.

On the question of race & class, I’m in full agreement with Kevin that race trumps class, and, with Kwame on the question of the difference in the way the Irish & Africans in America were (are) treated.

I’m intrigued by the “patty roller” songs Kwame mentions. I would also be interested to learn whether the slave-catchers & slave patrols were “Scots-Irish” or indeed Irish (at the end of the day, however, whatever their origins, being a slave-catcher or part of a slave-patrol is utterly reprehensible, and I don’t know quite what word would cover just how reprehensible it is…).

On the terminology : “Paddy” is an Anglicisation, and as such, an English word. The diminutive of Pádraig (the Irish Gaelic form of “Patrick”) is Pádraigín (the suffix -ín creates the diminutive form of Irish names, another example being “Máire” (Mary) which becomes “Máirín” (Maureen). Many Irish today, because they do not speak Irish, use the term “Paddy” in this way. Diminutives & nicknames are common in Ireland for cultural reasons. I note with interest the different usages put forward in an American context. If an Englishman, however, were to refer to any Irishman as “Paddy”, or if he were, without the necessary degree of relationship to the person carrying such a name, to use the diminutive, it would be a racist insult, and when used, it is usually intended as such. And, the term “paddywagon”, used in England would be similarly pejorative & racist, because of the associated stereotype of the “drunken Irishman”.

Stephanie McCarthy I also wish to add that given the history of Ireland, I remain profoundly disappointed that the Irish, especially in America, did not – do not – show more solidarity with oppressed peoples. ‎@Nick Jewitt : to the best of my knowledge, the use of the term “Paddy” to mean “generic Irishman” (and used with derogatory intent) has less to do with the fact that St. Patrick is the Patron Saint of Ireland, and has more to do with the fact that “Patrick” is one of the most common first names given to Irish boys (Michael being a close second). The reason for the giving of the name within an Irish cultural context is of course the saint himself, but the reason for the derogatory use of the name is not St Patrick, it is English racism against the Irish.

Stephanie McCarthy Addendum : I forgot to specify that Pádraigín is in fact a girl’s name (the Irish form of “Patricia”). For boys, the diminutive is “Páidín” (prounounced paw-DEEN),and there is also “Paidi”, which is pronounced much like the Anglicised form, “Paddy”, unless it is in fact a Gaelicisation of the English, Paddy… I’d have to research the rest…

Incidentally, the suffix “-ín” is also used in Hiberno-English constructions, such as “houseen”, meaning “small house”.

OK… my inner language & grammar nerd needs a coffee…

John Scagliotti While I agree with my friend Kevin, there are times however that when expressing history, it is sometimes important to know AND to use in context. When they would round up “fags” and “queens” in bars and arrest them for congregating (and the Mob hadn’t paid off the police that week) back prior to Stonewall, often they would be put into “Paddy Wagons” … our history needs to be remembered and used properly. They didn’t have signs saying “African Americans Only”

John Scagliotti It got cut off… and Rick Perry didn’t hunt at a camp called “blackhead”. What is most interesting is how many slurs are part of our racist, sexist and homophobic history. And how so many are being dusted off and brought out during this hay day of Republican/Corporate ruling class revivalism of class warfare.

Kwame Zulu Shabazz Agree with much of that, John. But I think its a mistake to pin this mess solely on Republicans. The Democrats are equally bought and bossed by corporate elites. kzs

Kevin Gray Of course the reporter uses ‘paddy wagon in her story about the rally at the SC Statehouse in defiance of the governor’s 6pm curfew on protest : “Organizers read the First Amendment, led chants and repeatedly read a letter of support from Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin. Last week, Columbia Police Chief Randy Scott, with Benjamin’s support, refused to loan the department’s ‘paddy wagon’ to the state police.”

Governor backs off protest curfew – SC Politics Today – TheState.com

Stephanie McCarthy The protestors are already being depicted as lazy, violent, spongers… and the media is contributing to these stereotypes of protestors, as it does everywhere. Add “paddywagon” to the list of epithets, and you can accuse them of being drunken, *just like the Irish*, and add another stereotype to the collection of images worthy of Fox News. Whatever about the etymology of the expression, I don’t think this reporter is using it in a neutral (and much less, in a historical, if the origin of the expression is owing to the numbers of Irish in the police force) sense. Yet another *fail* for the media.

Stephanie McCarthy ‎(Even if the reporter is unaware that what she wrote is derogatory, it remains derogatory nonetheless, no matter how well-intentioned she is).

Kwame Zulu Shabazz It didn’t read as derogatory to me. I take it to be a common nomenclature for a van-like vehicle used by police who anticipate multiple arrests. kzs

Kwame Zulu Shabazz Stephanie, do Irish people generally take offense to the word “paddy wagon”? kzs

Stephanie McCarthy Yes, they do.

Stephanie McCarthy I found the origin interesting, as given in the etymological online dictionary (LOVE that site), but now, it is generally understood to mean a wagon full of drunken Irish being carted off to a cooling cell…

Stephanie McCarthy However, Kwame, I’m gonna carry out a straw poll… and I will get back to you, either on this thread, or to your inbox. Your question is a good one, and, either I’m representative of general (Irish) opinion, or I’m in a minority… So, I’ll check it out further.

Stephanie McCarthy I can tell you from my own personal experience, that I cannot remember my father ever using that expression (to this day), and that during the 12 years of my life that I lived in Ireland, plus regular visits, that was not the colloquial or slang expression I ever heard used. (There were others, but not that one, and not expressions resembling that one).

Stephanie McCarthy ‎… I think it is because “Paddy” can be – and often is – used in a derogatory way, and multiple arrests are not exactly a positive thing, that the association between the two became derogatory.

Kwame Zulu Shabazz Yeah, African Americans aren’t specially targeting Irish people with the term paddy, rather they are responding to generalized white racism. I actually have a mild fascination with Ireland, partially because there was a time when Irish immigrants were something like white niggers. And I think there are linguistic links between Ebonics and the English of early arrivals to America from Ireland. On the other hand, as I understand it, a good number of Scot-Irish immigrants adopted virulent anti-black beliefs and practices in the Deep South. kzs

Stephanie McCarthy Funnily enough, although your comment above is the first time I’ve heard of the word “Paddy” in its African-American usage (so thank you for the cultural information!), to mean whites in general, I would not understand that usage as derogatory. The image I have of the reporter of the article Kevin linked is of a WASP (which may not even be the case), which says as much about my reaction to the term as it does about the reporter herself.

Every time I hear “Paddy” being used outside its own (Irish) context, meaning as the generic (and pejorative) term for “Irishman”, rather than the diminutive of “Patrick”, I think of the British, particularly English individuals, who have not got some perspective on their imperial history & their treatment of non-English folks (and that is my academic opinion ; what I would be inclined to do or say face-to-face is another story !!). I suppose I’ve heard too many stories of what my dad was called by Englishmen at work, especially in the context of the Troubles of the late 60s/early-to-mid 70s, and I remember well the Hunger Strikes of the 80s and Bobby Sands… and then there are the stories of experiences of friends & family in England… Which is not to say that “all English are bastards”, just that there is a certain vision of the Irish which still prevails.

The question of the Scots-Irish is interesting, as I mentioned their origins as colonists who dispossessed the Irish, so their behaviour being racist is just more of the same in the “New World” as they practised against the Irish in the “Old World”. Having said that, when the Irish “became white” (your description of the Irish being viewed as “white niggers” is exactly what was going on, especially when it came to the “Famine Irish”), many behaved appallingly… and undoubtedly still do to this day. I cringe when I see the likes of certain high-profile media hacks, Americans of Irish descent… Or hear about the abuses of the NYPD (dominated by the Irish).

About the link between Hiberno-English and Ebonics… That is VERY interesting…

I’ve only just now remembered the name of the website I’ve been trying to recollect so I can share it here :


Tangled Roots


Stephanie McCarthy The link I posted is described on the home page as “A Project Exploring the Histories of Americans of Irish Heritage and Americans of African Heritage”.

Kwame Zulu Shabazz ‎!

Stephanie McCarthy I know !!! Totally amazing site !!!

Pamela Willis Watters Fascinating…I have a friend in Brooklyn, of Irish heritage, whose nickname is “Paddy”. I never thought of it as an insult. He was the first of his family to not marry an Irish girl, he married an Italian. His mother calls her grandchildren, from that marriage, “Gimmicks” (taken from guinea and mic). I was horrified when I heard this. Then the racism goes on, as calling an Italian a guinea is implying that Italian-Americans are non-whites, therefore an insult…AAUUGH!!

Kwame Zulu Shabazz Hi Pamela. There is a kernal, in fact two kernals, of truth in the appellation “Guinea.” As I am sure you already know, Italian immigrants, like Jewish immigrants, arrived here as non-whites. They were not counted as part of the White Anglo-Saxon family. Their acceptance as marginal whites (marginal in the sense that they were Catholics) was gradual and, in part, relied on stepping over and sometimes on black people. An Italian-American woman I once encountered was literally speechless when I told her that “Guinea” was a cognate for black or African. Also, I seem to recall that she told me that southern Italians are more likely to be called Guinea. Although likely tangled up in racism, it is also geographic–southern Italy kisses North Africa. kzs

Stephanie McCarthy Pamela, in this instance, the diminutive form of “Patrick”, used within a cultural context he accepts and can relate to – his friends, family, familiars, or how he chooses to introduce himself – is not offensive, quite unlike the (mis-)use of the diminutive, by the English, used to insult & infantilise the Irish within an imperial context which is without a shadow of a doubt offensive & racist.

Carl Cimini These slurs have been replaced with almost happy talk versions. It is quite a mind set. Slurs, catchphrases and lingo continually morph until they are exposed. So in the end it is not what you say but what you do that matters. Mainstream media continually sells a culture that separates people in insidious ways.


Filed under American Culture, American History, Friends & Comrades, Political Ideology, racism, white supremacy

2 responses to ““Paddy”

  1. Arnold Karr

    I think calling an Irish or white person “Paddy” may be more analogous to calling any black male “Tyrone,” a Swede “Sven,” an Asian “Chang,” etc. than the more outrageous ethnic slurs since, as noted, it derives from a stereotypically Irish name.

  2. ber aka wu fats

    for general information: my father came to the usa in 1955 after working in england for a few years. he was extreemly annoyed to be called ‘paddy’ by the english bosses. he had spent six years fighting for the british during world war two. hand to hand combat in africa and in burma. he wished to be called by his given name “danny”, dan, or daniel. paddy was a raciast upper class slur to the irish. believing things would be diferent in usa we immigrated here in 1957. the english treated the irish as chattle all of the time they ruled ireland.and class slur that he had put up with and wanted to be caled by his name, dan, not paddy which to all irish sood for an insult as i does today. thank you, wu fats garden lf earthly delights. London,Rome,Paris and Jerome, AZ.

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