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Q From Kirk Mattoon: What is the derivation of jalopy? My old Webster’s New International Unabridged (new ca. 1939) doesn’t even list it, and my 1961 Partridge lists it (spelled jaloppy, a variant I’ve never seen in America) and defines it, but offers no source. He says it is a cheap or old motor-car, ca. 1950. I’m pretty sure it goes back to the 1930s, at least. It’s a strange word, and sounds as if it must be derived from French or Spanish, but I can’t find anything like it in the relevant dictionaries.

A Eric Partridge is actually saying, I think, that the term was first used in the UK about 1950, which may be true. But you’re right to argue that it’s much older than that. The first recorded use is about 1925–26 in the US, which is where it originated.

The truth is, dictionary makers have not the slightest idea where jalopy comes from. It was spelled all sorts of ways when it first appeared, a sure sign that oral transmission came first. So, in lieu of facts, here are some of the stories that others have recounted in worthy attempts to make some sense of the matter.

Yiddish is a candidate with shlappe, a term for an old horse that actually derives from Polish. A French origin has also been asserted, from chaloupe, a kind of skiff, though why the name should have come ashore in the process of changing languages is not explained. A lovely theory has it that the word comes from an Italian-American pronunciation of jelly apple. The story goes that a jell ’oppy was one of the decrepit old carts from which Italian immigrants sold this delicacy during the early part of the twentieth century. Others argue that it has a link with the Mexican town of Jalapa, where old vehicles were sent to rest and recuperate. Actually, a Spanish origin seems likely, but galapago, a tortoise, may be a more plausible suggestion, as a description of the slowness of beat-up old bangers.

I give no guarantees about any of this. We have to leave it as one of life’s mysteries.

Page created 21 Oct. 2000

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Last modified: 21 October 2000.