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What is a Paddywagon?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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A paddywagon is a police vehicle. The term is often used specifically to refer to large transport vans which are designed to accommodate a crowd of prisoners. However, technically any type of motor vehicle driven by police can be called a paddywagon. The term is widely used in the United States and Australia, as well as in some parts of Britain.

The origins of the word appear to lie in early 20th century America. There are three competing theories for the roots of the “paddywagon.” The first two are the most likely, as they link the term to early American prejudices about the Irish, who were known as “paddies,” probably in a reference to Saint Patrick. According to one of these theories, paddywagons were thusly named because many police forces had large numbers of Irish members, so a “paddywagon” was a vehicle driven by an Irish man. In the other case, a “paddywagon” was used to transport large numbers of drunk and rowdy Irish.

Some people have suggested that the term might refer to the padding which was used to line a paddywagon, ensuring that prisoners were not injured as they were transported. Most etymologists believe that this theory is incorrect, as it tries to turn “paddy” into “padding,” when the use of “paddy” as a slang term for Irish people is already well known. This type of back-formation is usually called “folk etymology.”

Another term for paddywagon is “black maria,” another phrase with interesting and frequently debated origins. In the sense of a black maria, a paddywagon is usually specifically a transport van, painted dark blue or black and used to round up unruly members of the public. In any instance, a paddywagon is generally something to be avoided, and the appearance of such a vehicle usually results in the rapid dispersal of a crowd.

For protests and other large, unruly crowds, a large police van can be a useful law enforcement tool, as it allows a police force to transport multiple prisoners without tying up an assortment of police cars. Paddywagons in the form of cars and light trucks can also be used for traffic control, as they can block traffic quite effectively, thus funneling cars and people in a desires direction. Civilians should be aware that in some countries, there are severe punishments for damaging a paddywagon of any sort, as it is deemed an assault on the police force itself.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Historical Index researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By indigomoth — On Jun 22, 2011

@sunnySkys - I would say that it is actually natural for people to develop an "us versus them" mentality. That's why there are laws to protect people's freedoms. There will always be people who act in a prejudiced way, in any country and in any time in history.

The main difference is now there are the laws to prevent people from acting in a bigoted way. In some cases the laws need to be expanded, but the basic goal of liberty and pursuit of happiness for everyone is a wonderful thing to keep in mind and aim for.

You're right though, it is interesting how the Irish went from being such a hated group to being just one more part of the mixing pot.

By KaBoom — On Jun 22, 2011

@sunnySkys - That is definitely food for thought.

The article is right about the paddywagon being a great tool for crowd control. I was at an outdoor festival that grew rowdy and as soon as the paddywagons pulled up people were on their best behavior! Although I think an even better tool for crowd control at a festival would be sobriety.

By sunnySkys — On Jun 22, 2011

So the term "paddy wagon" may have come from prejudices towards the Irish? It's so interesting how at one time in the history of the United States a group can be hated and feared and then in a few generations they are fully integrated into American society.

Unfortunately, I don't think we're making much progress with prejudice in this country. Even though we grow to accept certain groups after awhile we seem to just replace them with another group.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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