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Origin of paddy wagon

1925–30; probably paddy policeman, special use of paddy
Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2021


More context on paddy wagon

Paddy is a pet form of Patrick, a name commonly found in Ireland, whose patron saint is St. Patrick. That’s fine and all; plenty of individuals do go by the nickname Paddy. But using Paddy as a stand-in for all Irish people? That’s definitely not fine.

While many people are proud of their Irish heritage, it can be easy to forget how poorly treated the Irish were, especially by the British and as American immigrants.

While its exact origin is unclear, paddy wagon, for a police van or car, may be linked to a historic stereotype that painted Irish immigrants as no more than “drunk criminals” in the U.S.

If knowing the history of paddy wagon has got you reflecting on your word choices, this slideshow, “These Common Words Have Offensive Histories,” discusses many other words whose place in your vocab you may want to reconsider. 

Keep in mind …

Instead of paddy wagon, why not use the actual names of the vehicles that members of law enforcement drive?

The specific vehicle a paddy wagon refers to is a patrol wagon, but arrested suspects and prisoners can also be variously transported in a police car, a squad carpolice van, police bus (sometimes called a prison bus), or a prisoner transport vehicle.

And if you don’t need to refer to a vehicle, you can also simply say a person was arrested—no reason to insult an ethnic group while doing so. Informal alternatives for arrest include cuff, detain, nab, or pinch.

Head over to Thesaurus.com for more synonyms for arrest.

British Dictionary definitions for paddy wagon

paddy wagon


US, Australian and NZ an informal word for patrol wagon
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012