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Bike Walk Life

News and commentary from the world of biking and walking.

Do we need a better word for “pedestrian?”

The term pedestrian is awkward and has too many negative connotations, so I wonder if it’s due for a replacement.

It’s usually poor style to open an article with a dictionary definition, but this one seems necessary. Here’s the Merriam-Webster definition of pedestrian:

  1. : COMMONPLACE, UNIMAGINATIVE
    // his sentences and phrases are too often pedestrian, commonplace, and flat

That’s from the first entry. The second entry is what I would consider the “real” definition, which is a person who travels on foot. But the derogatory adjective gets top billing.

Perhaps the thesaurus is nicer? Let’s look at the synonyms.

arid, boring, colorless, drab, dreary, drudging, dry, dull, dusty, flat, heavy, ho-hum, humdrum, jading, jejune, leaden, mind-numbing, monochromatic, monotonous, numbing, old, ponderous, slow, stale, stodgy, stuffy, stupid, tame, tedious, tiresome, tiring, uninteresting, wearisome, weary, wearying

Yikes. I can only read about half-way through it before mentally shouting, “enough! I get it already.”

When you discuss mobility, like I do on this blog, then the word pedestrian, meaning a person who walks, comes up often. Yet I never enjoy using it. Even without the belittling dictionary definitions, it comes across as too clinical. No person refers to themselves as a “pedestrian” in a normal conversation. It’s the kind of word you write in a police report. If you set a Google News alert for the word pedestrian, you will receive a firehose of tragic stories. Poets rarely include it in their verses. I only use it because it gets the job done, not because it wins beauty prizes.

Merriam-Webster.com recently had an interesting article about pedestrian’s meaning. Apparently its origin was to contrast with equestrian, a person who travels by horse. (So are today’s car riders automobile-strians? Perhaps that has too many syllables to catch on.) But the article doesn’t offer much more than speculation as to why pedestrian may have its “dull” meaning.

My question is: what’s a better word? Walker means a frame you use to help you walk, or possibly a monster from The Walking Dead. The phrase person on foot earns points for its “people-first language,” but loses points for clumsiness.

Another problem is something I touched on earlier. When you walk from one place to another, you don’t call yourself anything special. You’re just a person who happens to be walking. A pedestrian is what you are when you aren’t anything else.

Maybe we don’t have a better word yet because the culture doesn’t demand one. Only law officers, journalists, policy planners, and bloggers such as myself are the ones who would use it. But wouldn’t it be nice if we had a more positive word? One that celebrates the act of walking? I’m happy to expand my vocabulary, if a candidate is out there.