And Why Do We Call Them That?

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Every American knows that the word jalopy means an elderly, decrepit automobile. Though the word undoubtedly originated in the United States, it is now common in all English-speaking countries and occasionally is used in some other parts of the world.

The earliest known appearance of the word jalopy in print, in a book published in Chicago in 1929, spelled it jaloppi . Nowadays, though dictionaries show different acceptable spellings, the most common is jalopy , even though this is somewhat undesirable in that it makes it appear that the word might rhyme with “soapy” or “dopey.” Instead, of course, jalopy rhymes with “copy” or “poppy.”

All current dictionaries of the English language, including slang dictionaries, define the word jalopy as “an old, decrepit automobile,” and follow that with “origin unknown.” The dictionary compilers simply do not know how the word came into existence, though they ail agree that it originated in the United States in the 1920s. It never applied to horse-drawn vehicles but only to automobiles and, rarely, to small airplanes.

The 1929 book that contains the earliest appearance of the word— It’s a Racket , by G. L. Hostetter and T. Q. Beesley—defines it as “a cheap make of automobile; an automobile fit only for junking,” but says nothing about its origin. In the 1930s the word appeared occasionally in American literature, for example in John Steinbeck’s 1936 novel In Dubois Battle , but in no case was its origin sugested. On page 306 of Volume XI (1936) of the scholarly journal American Speech , the word is the subject of a brief explanatory note by W.L. Werner of Pennsylvania State College, who spells il jalopy and defines it as “an old battered automobile” but indicates only that the word was apparently first used in the Northeast.

Everyone knows what a jalopy is, but until this moment no account of where the word comes from has appeared in print.

The one book that gives some hint as to its origin is the 1963 edition of H.L. Mencken’s The American Language , which defines jalopy as “a decreipt automobile or airplane.” This is followed by “origin obscure” but there is a footnote stating the Professor Lomas Barrett of Washington and Lee University in Virginia, a specialist in Latin American Spanish, informed the editors that jalopy comes from a Latin American word—which he did not supply.

Professor Barrett died in 1972, and no one seems to know what he had in mind. But there is a very plausible story as to the birth of the word jalopy that does indeed have a Latin American background—specifically, Mexican.

In the 1920s automobiles were being manufactured in rapidly increasing numbers in the United States. During that decade more and more of them, especially secondhand ones, were exported to Canada and Mexico, where automobile production did not yet exist. To get to Canada, many of the cars were simply driven north across the border, but to get to Mexico the great majority were loaded onto ships in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia and transported to Veracruz, Mexico’s major east-coast port.

The capital of Veracruz state is the city of Jalapa, seventy miles inland from the port of Veracruz on the road to Mexico City. Jalapa is renowned as the source of the red-hot chili jalapeño . Most of the secondhand automobiles that were unloaded at Veracruz were conveyed inland to Jalapa and there rehabilitated and put on the Mexican market. As the 1920s went on, so many shipping papers prepared in U.S. ports for secondhand cars showed Jalapa as the final destination that shipping clerks and longshoremen began nicknaming the old cars jalapas , pronouncing the j Yankee-style instead of as h , the proper Mexican way. The word for elderly automobiles evolved rather rapidly from jalapas to jaloppies , then to jalopies .

No one knows exactly who originated the word jalopy , or when. Thomas W. Gleason, president of the International Longshoremen’s Association, was born in 1900 and has been active on the New York docks since 1917; he recalls the Jalapa-jalopy story, but cannot declare with certainty that members of his association coined the word jalopy . They may well have, but as the 1920s fade farther into the past, this will probably be impossible to prove. Melitta Härtung, research editor of the American Automobile Association, and Alberto Gomez Obregon, director general of the Asociación Mexicana Automovilistica, are aware of the story too, although they know of no record of it in print.