Paddy wagon

The term paddy wagon (sometimes one word—paddywagon) usually denotes a large police vehicle used to transport multiple arrestees, and it sometimes refers to any large police vehicle regardless of its use.1 The term is of American origin, but its exact derivation is unknown.2

One theory about paddy wagon‘s origins is that the term came about due to the large numbers of Irish Americans on the police forces of some American cities.3 Paddy was once a slang term for Irish Americans, and although the term is rarely used anymore, some might still consider it offensive. Even if this theory about paddy wagon‘s origins is untrue, the prevalence of the theory leads some to believe that paddy wagon is offensive.

Still, paddy wagon is used often, even in some edited publications. Its continued use is probably due to the fact that there is no good alternative. Police van is vague, and prisoner transport vehicle is used specifically for vehicles used to transport prisoners from one detainment facility to another.


Nancy Pelosi is metaphorically handcuffed and tossed into a paddy wagon … [Wall Street Journal]

The protest – which incorporated an act of non-violent civil disobedience – not only landed Hector in an NYPD paddywagon … [Guardian]

When King moved to Atlanta, he was arrested during a protest and carted off in the back of a paddy wagon … [USA Today]

For good measure, a white paddy wagon pulled up under the butterscotch arches of the hotel’s front drive. [Los Angeles Times]


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7 thoughts on “Paddy wagon”

  1. The term “paddy” was also applied to this vehicle because it supposedly carried drunken Irishmen, another rude reference. The writer of the above piece seemed surprised it is still in use but Irish, at least in my family, are not easily offended by such terms and are likely to use it ourselves.

  2. I just saw some 1910 photos of Indianapolis police vehicles. Painted on the sides of these early motorized vans in large block letters was the word “PATROL.” Could “paddy” have originally been a nickname for “patty”?

  3. I have heard the expression ”paddy wagon” many times and wondered about the origin before. So, I think it either refers to the amount of Irish police officers on US forces at the time the phrase was coined, or to the number of drunk Irish arrested. Or both. Either way, no self-respecting Irish person would refer to themselves as a ”paddy”! It’d be like an American calling themselves a ”yank”. It’s weird. And although ”paddy” isn’t considered that offensive in itself, ”paddy wagon” clearly is offensive (although many Irish people still use the expression) as it perpetuates a ridiculous stereotype.

  4. I was under the impression that “Paddy” does not refer to Irish Americans but rather Irish Catholics, as slang for St Patrick.


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