What's the origin of *riding shotgun*?

I predict that at sometime in the future, some errant etymologist will mistakenly claim that “taking a shotgun approach,” in the sense of tossing out handfuls of shit and hoping some of it sticks, is derived from this column. :slight_smile:

Now, for extra credit: why are the little 2-room box houses common in places like New Orleans called “shotguns”?

(I know, but I won’t tell until later.) :o

I know, too, but I’ll let others search for it.

DARE cites the “shotgun house” first from 1936. I can date the term from 1903.

Two-room houses called shotguns? That’s bizarre. Wouldn’t every two-room house or apartment automatically be a shotgun? I think you have the term confused with “shotgun double.”

Either term is only properly applied to many-room apartments, even in New Orleans.

Shotgun double: This means that the apartment is one side of a house that has been split in half. It is called a “shotgun” house because the rooms are all lined up in a row, which means that the resident must walk through all the rooms to get through the house. These tend to be cheap, but also make for awkward roommate situations.

To continue this hijack…


Of course, usage evolves. A term may have originally referred to one thing, and then… you know…

I’ve heard the term “shotgun shack” applied to very small houses b/c you could fire a shotgun and hit everything in the house. The term is probably borrowed from an earlier meaning of “shotgun house”, but I do believe (admitted WAG) it came to be applied to very small houses for this reason.

I hear “shotgun” used more generally – original meaning, I think – to describe any house with all its rooms lined up in a row (as mentioned above). Recently, I heard it used to refer to a style of house with a single hallway with rooms off to either side, but that’s new to me. Where I’m from (small textile mill town in SE US where plenty of these are still in use, though no one builds them anymore) it means you have to actually walk through every room to traverse the house.

I’ve heard 2 versions of the origin. One: you could fire a shotgun at the front door and kill a man at the back door. Two: the house is straight like a gun barrel.

Never did like either of those. Seems to me “rifle” would make more sense than “shotgun” in either case. But “rifle house” just lacks that certain something.

There’s a problem here. It’s entirely possible that the makers of the film used a known term which applied to automobiles out of context in the film. So leaping from the reference in “Stagecoach” to asking when the transfer to cars happens is dubious.

The terms was definitely used by bootleggers in the GA mtns early in the 20th century, for obvious reasons – you can’t use the shotgun if you’re driving.

Its origins before that… dunno.

Btw, in a convenience store a couple of weeks ago ran into a couple of old revenuers reminiscing over their methods and certain bootleggers they knew who were especially difficult to catch. I remember as a kid we’d occasionally run across long-dead stills on land my father owned. It’s one of the few things I willingly romanticize.

If you’ve got a source from the early 20th Century, Thingol, please share it with us.

Note that we have a lot of related terms here. The the term “shotgun messenger” or “shotgun guard” does indeed date back to stagecoach days. The term “riding shotgun” however seems to come from the movies of the 30s and 40s, referring to the stagecoah. The first references to riding shotgun meaning in an automobile seems to be from the early 1950s.

“Shotgun house” may well be folk etymology. In his book In Small Things Forgotten, archaeologist James Deetz makes the argument that “shotgun” in this phrase is a corruption of a word that means “house” in some West African language. I don’t own a copy of the book, so I can’t check the details.

bib. What’s your source for the possiblity that “house” = “shotgun” in some West African language? I know it was Deetz, but where’s the cite you’re quoting from?

I personally doubt the connection, but will post it to the American Dialect Society for discussion.

In Small Things Forgotten : An Archaeology of Early American Life, by James Deetz

From an Amazon search inside the book, p. 216:

There are a number of other references to shotgun houses on nearby pages.

I read Deetz’s book last year. I don’t own a copy, so I’m going by memory here.

Damn! Now I know why you were always the terror of the board when it came to finding cites. You actually READ some of this stuff! :slight_smile:

No, nothing reliable, I’m afraid. Dunno why I used “definitely” there. :o Some of my father’s older retired law enforcement buddies use the term and claim they got it from the bootleggers.

Don’t ask me why, but these guys are always talking about where words came from. Don’t know why I chose to believe them in this case (I guess b/c, like I said, I willfully romanticize bootlegging). They’ll also repeat that jalapeno peppers got their name because Mexican kids would try them and holler “Ja! La pena!” (“Oy, the pain!”, per their ‘translation’).

On this one, though, I figured they were talking from personal experience, but even if that’s their memory, that doesn’t make it reliable. Heck, one of the “Ja! La Pena!” guys worked in S. Texas!

FWIW locally a house is called a gunbarrel if, as above, you can see down the passage to the back door from the front door. I think the sense is more “straight as a gunbarrel” (ie the passageway is straight and long like a gunbarrel) than “you could shoot someone at the back door from the front door”.

<< Some of my father’s older retired law enforcement buddies use the term and claim they got it from the bootleggers. >>

I’m wild-ass guessing here, but it’s possible that the term “riding shotgun” referring to an automobile was used in later movies about bootleggers and gangsters… That could easily conflate (is that the word) in the brain to actual booleggers’ use?

I guess we need someone to volunteer to watch through some of the great gangster flicks like WHITE HEAT and PUBLIC ENEMY and so forth to see.

That’s possible. Of course, the guys who talked about this were older than my father – I imagine many/most are dead now – and actually ran down bootleggers, or so they say and I have no reason to doubt them about that… bootlegging is very well documented in that area and there were plenty of “you remember that one time…?” stories that had them cracking up before they could even finish it, so it’s not like they were sitting around yakking about “this fellow I worked with in Memphis, he said he knew a man…”. Another reason I bought the tale, I suppose.

These bootleggers weren’t prohibition-era mobsters, btw. They were rural people making cheap hooch, selling it in dry counties in the mountains. Natural selection made some of their descendants excellent stock-car drivers.

I’ll be happy to watch the flicks, though!

PS: They also said that no one “rode shotgun” in the backseat because the bootleggers removed the backseats from the cars they “ran” in, and that this was why it was a bootlegging term.

Thunder Road ? 1958.

Going back to your original post, I see you were trying to say that that was before the 1939 movie. That’s not true.


Ah, I see that I was confused, too, like RM Mentock. I thought you were citing folks from the Prohibition Era, which would pre-date the 1939 usage.

Summarizing, my research indicated:

  • 1880s actual stagecoach usage for “shotgun messenger” or “shotgun guard.”
  • 1939 Western movie usage for “riding shotgun” on a stagecoach
  • 1954 usage for “riding shotgun” in an automobile

So, my question for you is: When do you think your grandfather’s cronies were using the term? If we’re talking significantly earlier than 1954, then you could be on to something and it would be fun to track it down. If we’re talking after (say) 1954, then it’s not worth the effort.

Some of these guys would have been doing that work in the 1940s.