What's the origin of *riding shotgun*?

Clarify, pls. What’s not true?

“To all you kiddies watching out there in TV Land, remember, don’t run with scissors, don’t play with guns, and never attempt to reason backward from something you already believe.”

Sorry bout that, folks.

I think we can pretty much toss the proof-from-crony argument at this point.

Like I said in my followup to my original post on the phrase: “Nothing reliable, I’m afraid. Dunno why I used ‘definitely’ there. Some of my father’s older retired law enforcement buddies use the term and claim they got it from the bootleggers.”

Thinking of all the problems. The biggest one is: Yes, these guys told true stories, but they also told stretchers. Can I recall accurately whether the old fellows were speaking from experience on this particular point, not just any old tale about bootleggers? No, and I wouldn’t trust my memory that well even if I thought I could recall an exact conversation anyway.

I’d like to find some of them and ask if they were using the term in the 40s, regardless of where it might have come from, but I don’t see a way to do that without planting the idea. And even if I could get around that, there’s no clear reason to trust their memory about the timeframe, unless they can remember an event that would date the usage, which is hard to imagine.

Just curious, what significance does the 1939 film usage have, in your opinion?

I can see 4 scenarios:

  1. Writers actually knew something about stagecoach lingo, included “riding shotgun” b/c it was accurate.
  2. Writers knew of “shotgun messenger” and “shotgun guard”, wrote the line “riding shotgun” b/c it sounded cool.
  3. Writers made it up on the spot w/ no reference to actual stagecoach lingo.
  4. “Riding shotgun” was already in use in the contemporary lingo in re cars, they wrote it in (anachronism) either with or without knowledge of “shotgun guard” and “shotgun messenger”.

I thought it was the first verifiable instance.

I’m absolutely sure that 2) is true, and 3) is false, regardless of 1) and 4). 1) and 4) could be true, but we don’t have any verification yet.

And one more thing, what exactly is the claim made by Partridge, mentioned in Dex’s column? Which referece work is that, it doesn’t appear in the list of resources at the end of the column.

Oh, sorry, yes I understand that. Was too telegraphic. By “significance”, I meant, what can we deduce from that particular first usage? E.g., a first verifiable instance in Twain might indicate previous popular usage, one in Carroll might indicate coinage in that year…

I still have concerns about this from the column:

Even given that other “shotgun” terms can be attributed to stagecoach lingo, usage of the specific term “riding shotgun” in the 1939 film does not allow the assumption that there was a leap from usage re stagecoaches to cars outside of films. It’s entirely possible, as mentioned above, that “riding shotgun” has always been exclusive to automobiles in popular usage.

But maybe no one was making that assumption and I’m barking up the wrong tree.

That would be your number 4), right? That there were folks who were using the phrase in automobiles, and it was never actually used on stagecoaches. That’s a fine distinction, though, and it seems more probable that it was observed in the movies and transferred to the automobile scene.

What does Partridge say, exactly?



I’ll bet if anybody used it in the automobile sense before 1939, F. Scott Fitzgerald did. Who wants to read his novels again? There’s not that many of them. Plus a few short stories.

If that’s in answer to the question of why it seems more probable that people started saying “riding shotgun” in re to cars because of the movie, rather than the scriptwriters borrowing a term they were already familiar with which applied to autos, I don’t take your meaning. You’re going to have to get a lot less cryptic than that.

If you mean that we should expect to see other citations regarding cars, I don’t see that this has to be the case.

But you may not have meant that. I can’t really tell what you meant.

Personally, where I would look for citations prior to '54 or '39 would be in police reports and depositions of criminals. Lingo often slips into these. But no one in their right mind would undertake such a task, so that point’s moot.

Just to be clear: the references I found said that the phrase “riding shotgun” emerged from movies (westerns, natch) of the 1940s. On my own, I watched John Ford’s STAGECOACH (1939) and found two direct usages of “riding shotgun”, so I have found an earlier cite than the other sources.

I’m not claiming that’s the earliest cite, just that it’s earlier than the others (so far.)

There’s no logic that could possibly get from the use of the term “riding shotgun”
in cars to precede its use in Western movies. Especially since it’s fairly well established that the phrase was NOT used on the real stagecoaches.

I’m not at home, so I don’t have any references handy, but “Patridge” is Eric (?) Partridge, a standard work on etymology.

Huh? Are you saying that screenwriters don’t anachronistically use contemporary phrases in their writing, or do I misunderstand here?

I don’t precisely follow the syntax of that first sentence, but I take it to mean “There’s no logic that could possibly get the use of the term ‘riding shotgun’ in cars to precede its use in Western movies.”

It’s simple. Dudley writes phrase into movie b/c it sounds cool, his audience will get it, and it fits w/ actual stagecoach lingo. Line does indeed sound cool, gets picked up in other Westerns b/c these guys are all watching each other’s work.

Seems pretty obvious to me that the use of this phrase in Western films ca 1940 doesn’t kill the notion that it was also used in some circles to refer to cars around the same time. I’m not saying that it was, but I’m not ready to accept films as source for the reference to cars just yet.

I think what he’s saying is that it is generally well accepted that the phrase is a reference to stagecoach shotguns. You’ve made a case for bootleggers, but that’s after the instance that Dex found.

You guys cut it out, or I’m gonna need an Advil pretty soon. :smiley:

I don’t think that has been shown at all. Sure, no one has yet found a pre-car CITE, but that doesn’t mean that term wasn’t occasionally tossed around. In fact, since it is a logical term to use, the chances are very high it was. If we had a time machine, and coudl go back and listen in on every stagecoach related conversation, I’d happliy bet that that phrase would have been used. I admit that just because it was occ used does not at all mean that the modern term came from the stagecoach period, in fact I agree it likely does come from the movies.

There, my WAG was that it was a “false anachronism”. Kinda like putting lot of “Ye Olde” on signs- where “Ye” where the “y”= a “thorn” might be correct, but the indescriminate adding of extra final "e"s is usually wrong. (Oh, and "ye and in “ye old” is pronounced “the” . “y” in this case= “th”).

I suppose I can ask my father about the use of the term by bootleggers in the depression. He used to “run shine” back in the day. He also lived in my grandparents old shotgun house too. You could shoot somebody in the front yard from the back yard if both doors were open.

Where did the term originate though? Actually, I believe it was first used by the railroads. Shortly after the civil war, raiders were notorious for stealing from the railroads. They would actually have someone ride in the engine carrying a shotgun to help prevent trains from being robbed.

I believe if you’ll read the works of Francis Bret Harte you’ll find that he referred to shotgun riders in the mid to late 1800’s. He was a very popular writer at one time (He worked with Twain) and may be the main reason the term spread across the country. He actually rode shotgun for a stage at one time according to him.
In his works for the “Overland Monthly” or perhaps any number of other sites you’ll find references to “riding shotgun”.

I still believe I first came across the term though in some Civil War documents. I’ll get some quotes when I get back from work tonight.

It could be “I think I love you,” (Partridge, Keith, 1971) but I doubt it.

(I love this board because I could ask for a show of hands of all the people who have read Partridge cover to cover and actually expect to see some hands.)

And I am not the slightest bit surprised that the earliest uses of “riding shotgun” came from movies. Screenwriters are often more articulate and creative than cowboys.

t-keela, while I have no doubt that Bret Harte made reference to “shotgun messengers,” I would be very surprised if he actually used the term “riding shotgun.”

It would be peculiar indeed in the etymologists had all overlooked that earlier usage.

-The earliest usage of the term “shotgun guard” or “shotgun messenger” is the late 1800s.
-The earliest reported (so far) usage of the term “riding shotgun” is 1939, to refer to a stagecoach guard

  • The earliest use of the term “riding shotgun” or the earliest use of just the term “shotgun” to mean the passenger seat in a car dates to about 1954.

So, if Bret Harte said “riding shotgun,” that would be an earlier usage and I’d be glad to have a cite, and we could confound most etymologists.

Hey Dex I’ll see what I can do for ya. You are aware that the movie “Stagecoach” is a movie adaptation of a story written by Harte?

Sorry, that was supposed to be a preview…I think what Harte said was “shotgun rider”. Close enough IMO. But not to worry…I’ll get a quote.