pedestrian \puh-DES-tree-uhn\, noun, adjective:

1. a person who gets about on foot; walker
2. going on foot; walking
3. without imagination; dull

I got the above in my email from’s Word of the Day this morning, and the third entry struck me as odd. What does it say about our culture as reflected in our language that self-locomotion is something to be scorned?

When my boys were younger, we used to walk for exercise, to get out, to experience the world, and to talk without distraction. We had wonderful conversations about life, the universe, and everything; we played imagination games as we stalked the deadly Stopasaurus but failed to find anything but the occasional octagonal red prints; and the boys helped me brainstorm my stories, introducing interesting elements or just getting me to think things through.

Pedestrian? Well yes, except for when one of them was in a stroller.

But pedestrian? I can’t imagine a description less adequate or more inappropriate than “without imagination; dull.” To this day, I remember those times fondly and miss them.

Since moving to Nevada, I have taken up walking again, by myself or with my husband this time as my boys are too busy with their own lives.

As I walk, responsible for nothing but putting one foot in front of the other, I work out story problems, get past programming limitations, muse on my world, and sing along to my MP3 player. And that’s not even considering the natural beauty all around me with ducks of more varieties than I knew existed, the ever-present (though migratory ;)) Canada Geese, the two herons who are never seen together, the swooping hawks, occasional eagles, and numerous smaller birds, including the laughable hat bob on the heads of quail.

So then I go to Online Etymology Dictionary ( and find this:

pedestrian (adj.)
1716, “prosaic, dull” (of writing), from L. pedester (gen. pedestris) “plain, prosaic” (sense contrasted with equester “on horseback”), from pedes “one who goes on foot,” from pes (gen. pedis) “foot” (see foot). Meaning “going on foot” is first attested 1791 in Eng. (it was also a sense of L. pedester). The noun meaning “walker” is 1793, from the adj.

If I’m reading this correctly, the dull meaning, though contrasted with on horseback, predates the walking meaning by some 70+ years. I’d be willing to concede the physical act of walking, the putting one foot in front of the other, has little to recommend it compared to a wild charge across a desert valley on horseback, but I’d question whether a walking pace on a horse would be any more thrilling, any less…umm…pedestrian :).

And if all you’re doing when walking is the physical act, might I suggest you’re missing a grand opportunity. Now I would not go so far as to recommend my older sister’s practice of crossing busy streets with her head in a book, but there’s a lot of things you can do when walking that are not recommended for other modes of locomotion. No one is going to pass a “no walking on the cell phone” ban, nor is arguing with a friend (friendly discussion now! ;)) as likely to result in a potentially serious accident.

With all this talk of the pedestrian act, I think I’ll leave you now to go out into the sunshine I can see through the window. Perhaps today I will actually catch the two herons at once. It hasn’t happened in over two years, but I keep looking while committing a pedestrian act.

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6 Responses to Pedestrian

  1. David & Elizabeth says:

    The word 'peon'= peasant, unlettered person,& therefore dull, pedestrian, ordinary is, in Portuguese 'peon' = a person who goes on foot. Seen on every street crossing in Lisbon. Language is defined by the literate, who were in service to the knights = equestrians, who had a vested interest in assuming that the peasants were lower class.

  2. Jean says:

    Those red things are Stoposaurus tracks? Cool.

    (My word verification is “uprour.” Might that be the sound the stoposaurus makes?)

  3. Jean says:

    Note: I invoked the Texas spelling of Stopasaurus.

  4. Margaret says:

    Good point on the word origins. That’s one of the reasons I looked it up, but the etymology I found didn’t bring it back to class distinctions as you did, but that extra step makes sense. However, language is dynamic, and this meaning seems rather archaic ;).

    Texas spelling, eh? My word is erligna. I think yours is closer to the sound for sure :). After all, the signs are “up” from the ground, so even the up part of yours makes sense :D.

  5. will-couvillier says:

    I saw your name on the HM list over at the WotF blog. It was interesting – usually the only person claiming Nevada as their state is myself.

  6. Margaret says:

    Hi Will,

    Yes, we have a bit of a writing contingent up in Reno. I’ve been a Nevadan for only 3 years though…and I love it here :).

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