Etymologies: “Highway Robbery”

Highway Robbery: an outlandishly high price

This term originates from the early 1920’s when highways were still movable (1). In those days highways were set on large wheels and relocated to areas of need based on traffic (2). A problem arose when robbers began to literally ‘rob highways’, stealing them and moving them to remote hiding spots. Any cars left on the highway were looted and then sent on their way. The highways themselves were held for ransom; robbers were able to ask for considerable amounts of money as the highways were necessary for transportation to and from the emerging urban areas. The ridiculous size of these ransoms became associated with the term ‘highway robbery’ and soon any large price was compared to a ‘highway robbery’. The president at the time eventually solved the problem with the Federal Aid Highway Act, ingeniously creating highways that were affixed to the ground (3).


1 – For this reason highways were not given names, only numbers, since they were not permanent. This tradition continues today.

2 – At times this would mean that other roads were blocked off by the newly placed road, leading to the term ‘roadblock’.

3 – The Act was famously argued for with the often misquoted line “It’s my way or the highway will be stolen”.


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