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Street, Road, etc.

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Dear Word Detective: What is the difference between a “street” and a “road”? Why are some “thoroughfares” called “streets” and some “roads”? — Linda.

That’s a great question, but obviously I can’t delve into “street” and “road” without also explaining “highway,” “lane,” “way,” “boulevard,” “avenue,” and “drive.” So fasten your seatbelts and we’ll put the pedal to the metal.

A “street” was originally simply a paved road, whether paved with stones in Roman times or asphalt today. The English word “street” comes from the Latin “strata,” which was short for “via strata,” meaning “paved road.” That “strata” was based on the Latin “sternere,” to spread out, referring to stone or gravel spread on the road, and the same “sternere” gave us “strata” in the sense of “layers.” While any paved road can be called a “street” in a loose sense, modern usage restricts the term to urban and suburban roads.

“Road” is a bit odd in that it comes from the same Germanic root as “to ride,” and the original meaning of “road” in Old English was “the act of riding” (as well as “an incursion,” a meaning today reflected in its close relative “raid”). It wasn’t until the 16th century that “road” acquired the meaning of “a path leading someplace,” which eventually became our modern “road” in the sense of a path commonly maintained and used for travel. The same sense of “path or direction” also underlies “way,” derived from a Germanic root meaning “to move.” Today we use “way” to mean both a metaphorical route or manner (“I like the way you cook hot dogs”) and a street or road.

Generally speaking, at least in the US, “street” is used in urban and suburban areas for most roads, with “road” being reserved for broader, longer roads. In the countryside, away from cities and towns, even narrow glorified cow paths are called “roads.” Go figure.

“Drive,” like “road,” derives from an act of movement, in this case the original sense of the verb meaning “to force to move, to push from behind” derived from Germanic roots. As a noun in English, “drive” initially meant simply “an act of driving forward,” then “an excursion in a vehicle,” and, by the early 19th century, “a path for carriages.” All the other common senses of “drive,” from “engine” to “psychological motivation” (“drive to succeed”) to “organized effort” (“fundraising drive”) also come from the basic idea of a force moving something forward.

A “highway” is “high” not because it is raised above the level of the surrounding land (though it may be), but because a “highway” was originally a main route between two towns or cities. “High” in this sense of “principal” dates back to the early 14th century, and the main drag of many British (and some US towns) is often named “High Street” reflecting this sense of being the “main or principal” street in town.

The roots of “lane” are, unfortunately, a mystery, but in Old English it meant a narrow way bounded by hedges or, later on, a narrow street closely lined by houses or walls. Today we use “lane” to mean simply a narrow, usually short road, but the sense of restriction lives on in the use of “lane” to mean a strictly defined section of a highway (“passing lane”) or ocean (as in “shipping lanes”).

An “avenue” takes its name from the Middle French “avenue” meaning “way of approach,” which was initially applied to the wide, straight and usually tree-lined drive leading up to a large country house. By the mid-19th century, however, “avenue” was being applied in the US to any broad “upscale” street (think Park Avenue in New York City).

That leaves my favorite of such “street” terms, “boulevard.” Like “avenue,” “boulevard” entered English from French, which had adopted the word from the Dutch “bolwerk,” meaning “fortified wall, rampart” (which also produced the English word “bulwark”). In French the word originally just meant “fortified wall, as around a castle,” and more particularly the walkway around the top of such a wall. Eventually, however, “boulevard” came to mean the sort of broad promenade often built on the remnants of ruined fortifications in Europe, and was still later generalized to mean a broad, graceful, multi-laned avenue in a city.

1 comment to Street, Road, etc.

  • Tim Brooks

    I think your origin of ‘Highway’ is maybe not correct.

    Frequently the quickest summer route between two places would be a ‘low road’ following the valley bottom as far as possible (it takes a lot of energy to climb hills).

    However, in the winter this route would be impassable due to waterlogging, and the ‘high road’ would take you past the boggy bits.

    As turnpikes and similar carriage routes were introduced, and were expected to be open thoughout the year, so wherever necessary they would avoid the boggier bits of the low roads (probably not all as better drainage had increasingly improved the situation), and this is where the word ‘highway’ probably originated, so contra to your statement, it does refer to height.

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