Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

Word on the Street: Sketchy Traffic Lingo

In my latest column for The Boston Globe, I observed that Beantown has more than its fair share of local terms for sketchy traffic maneuvers: the Boston left, the Boston bump, the Boston block, and so forth. But these regional labels can be found all over the country, and new ones keep cropping up.

One thing I discovered while researching the column is that everyone seems to think that their particular region has a monopoly on questionable driving tactics: thus, the Boston left (turning left as soon as a light turns green before oncoming traffic gets in the way) is known elsewhere as the Pittsburgh left, the Jersey left, the Rhode Island left, the New York left, and so forth. And the rolling stop that is most often called the California stop or California roll is also called the Hollywood stop, the Michigan stop, the New York stop, the Philly stop, the St. Louis stop, or simply the American stop.

While there does seem to be a tendency for different regions to make claims on the same maneuver, often these regional terms are used to make more fine-grained distinctions or to name more outrageous moves. Here's a sampling of some of the more peculiar examples I've come across:

  • Jersey dive: This is the name for "dashing across multiple lanes of traffic at the last minute to get to an offramp," according to a Jalopnik commenter. Folks on Twitter also dubbed this the Jersey slide or the Puerto Rican slide.
  • Kentucky right turn: In a 1986 "On Language" column in the New York Times Magazine, one of William Safire's correspondents defined this as ''the maneuver performed when a driver, about to turn right, first swings to the left.'' I have also seen this called the farmer turn.
  • Minnesota flying wedge: On Twitter, Christian Frederickson said this was the local term for "2+ cars driving abreast on the highway."
  • Florida creep: In 1995, a reader of Bob Levey's Washington Post column reported this term for "stopping at a red light some distance behind the next car, then inching forward."
  • Chicago dodge: The same reader said this meant "signaling a turn in one direction and turning in the other."
  • Virginia end run: Again from Levey's reader: "Car A passes Car B, which is passed in turn by Car C. Simultaneously. On a two-lane road."
  • West Virginia split pass: In a followup column, another of Levey's readers described this bizarre maneuver, which one-ups the Virginia end run: "Car B is passing Car A on a two-lane road. Just as Car B is alongside Car A, Car C approaches from the opposite direction. Car B veers to the left shoulder and continues to accelerate. Car C goes between oncoming Cars A and B. Then Car B pulls ahead of Car A," and everyone somehow lives happily ever after.

If this split pass is actually something that happens on the roads of West Virginia, then I think we have a winner for the most insane traffic designation. If you have any other colorful driving terms in your neck of the woods, let us know in the comments below!

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Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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Comments from our users:

Friday April 12th 2013, 1:26 AM
Comment by: Chris W. (Rozelle Australia)

Check out the Melbourne Hook Turn. (Remember in Australia, we drive on the left)...

> http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hook_turn

In Melbourne, at a right hand turn junction, you must pull over to the left before turning right (and thus crossing all traffic lanes). Believe it or not, it just works (mostly!).

Friday April 12th 2013, 10:37 AM
Comment by: Wood F.
I'm from Minnesota and have never heard the term "flying wedge." But I have seen the phenomenon of two cars driving abreast on the interstate at the same speed, blocking anyone from passing. I doubt this annoyance is limited to Minnesota however!
Friday April 12th 2013, 1:57 PM
Comment by: Mark H. (United Kingdom)
We expats living in Saudi Arabia soon learn to join in the traffic fun with what we generically refer to as 'Saudi Maneuvers', which include overtaking on either side [ the 'English Side' is preferable!] challenging drivers on roundabouts for precedence [ they assume those on the roundabout should give way, but it comes down to who has the stronger nerves!], parking on the pavement or roundabouts, and [ for graduates of the system only] backing up on a highway if you miss your exit.
Friday April 12th 2013, 4:53 PM
Comment by: Cheryl L. (Colorado Springs, CO)
In Michigan there is the "Michigan Left" - where you can't turn left at a light. Instead one must go past the light, turn left in a special lane (basically, make a U turn), go back to the light and turn right. These are all along Woodward Avenue going toward Detroit.
Friday April 12th 2013, 10:05 PM
Comment by: John P. (Golden, CO)
In my neck of the woods, the Kentucky Turn you've described is often called a Big Rig Turn or Big Rig Corner.
Friday April 12th 2013, 11:54 PM
Comment by: Gabrielle T. (Sydney Australia)
We have the same tendencies to take on risky maneuvers here in Sydney Australia, and even worse but can't think of a term to suggest. What I and many others have a habit of doing is turning right before the green arrow lights up, often to the fury of oncoming traffic. But you're in a hurry and think, 'oh, I can make it'. There might be a term for that - don't know.

What really infuriates me though are aggressive drivers at your rear who hoot their horn when you must stop to let a pedestrian cross the road, and those who go berserk when you don't turn left, as I guess one is supposed to do. Got in the wrong lane? Didn't realize. Ok, so what? Road rage is rampant in my country, as I guess it is everywhere.

Parking lots is another one. Who has the right to grab a spot soon becoming vacant, the one approaching or the one coming from the other way. Who knows? I don't, I just go for it.
Saturday April 13th 2013, 7:11 AM
Comment by: Meredith S.
Watch out for the Rhode Island slide. . .approach the stop sign, depress brakes ever so slightly and then continue through intersection accelerating once your rear wheels have passed the stop sign.
Sunday April 14th 2013, 5:29 PM
Comment by: mike H. (san diego, CA)
Ben the 'split pass' used to be the normal way the back roads of Texas operated. I worked the small towns of Texas in the late 70's and common road courtesy dictated moving 2 wheels on to the shoulder to let people pass in both directions.

The first time I ran into the maneuver, I literally almost ran into it. I had never seen the like. However, once encountered it is easy enough to do. I don't know if Texans would think of it as a maneuver for it was the way they drove.

We called the wide swing a granny turn or farmer's turn.


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