MAIN STREET AND HIGH STREET.

Dave Wilton of Wordorigins.org has done an admirable job of sorting out the history of main street (primarily US) and high street (primarily UK) in this post. His conclusion:

More likely the divergence between the British High Street and the North American Main Street is simply due to the opening of a lexical niche with the creation of cities and streets in the New World and the decline in the use of high to mean “principal.” The streets on the new continent had to be named something, and Main just happened to gain a beachhead, perhaps because at the time the meaning of high was being narrowed, and its use as a descriptor seemed more enigmatic. Once established in Boston and a few other cities on the eastern seaboard, Main Street was then carried westward to new towns.

But by all means read his whole post and enjoy the details.

Comments

  1. FWIU, the British form is the High [Street], or am I wrong or out of date here? Main Street doesn’t normally take an article when it’s a name, only when it’s purely descriptive: the main street of Harlem is 125th St., for example.

  2. Laughingrat says:

    Interesting! In Columbus, we have both a Main Street and a High Street, both of great age, both primary arteries through town.

  3. In the US, streets named “High Street” can be recognized by the fact that all the street signs have been stolen by vandals.
    I had a friend who moved from High St. to Easy St. In both cases, directions to his home involved turning at an intersection with no street sign.

  4. @John Cowan: FWIU, the British form is the High [Street], or am I wrong or out of date here?
    I don’t think the possibility of dropping Street is universal – you can do it in Oxford, for example, but I wouldn’t assume you could do it generally.
    You seem to me to be right about it taking an article though. That is even though the formal name, as written on the street sign or as used in postal addresses, is simply High St. I think this is atypical. You can generally put the definite article before names of Roads, especially when going somewhere specific, like the Abingdon Road or the Bristol Road, but even when not, such as the King’s Road. I can’t think of other Streets of which this is true though, even when they were historically named for where they went, like Oxford Street. (This issue was discussed in a lengthy thread at Language Log a couple of months ago.)
    The Dave Wilton article seems hesitant about accepting the unsupported claims in Wikipedia on the relative prevalence of these street names in the UK so I just ran them through Streetmap to check. It returns 3020 High Streets, 1354 Main Streets, 700 Main Roads and 187 High Roads.

  5. Is there a similar regional distinction between German Langstrasse (Alsatian Langstross) and Hauptstrasse?

  6. Fascinating!
    Montreal’s Saint Lawrence Boulevard or boulevard Saint-Laurent is commonly called The Main or la Main. See http://boulevardsaintlaurent.com/?lang=en and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_Laurent_Boulevard. Street numbers run east and west from there, and it is also the symbolic dividing line between the English and French parts of the city.
    Related query: We use ‘honorific’ to denote terms like Mr. and Ms. Does anyone know a parallel term that indicates all the possibilities of street, boulevard, road, avenue and the like?

  7. There have been discussions elsewhere on dropping the reference to street etc.
    In general British usage keeps them because Cathedral Street is likely to be near Cathedral Row, Cathedral Close etc.
    Visitors to London from the sub-continent are often insistent they want to go to Oxford when they really want to go shopping on Oxford Street (I’ve experienced this several times in different decades).
    Some really old signs still display the old convention e.g. Oxford-street

  8. michael farris says:

    It seems to me that often in British usage “high street” is used as a modifier that doesn’t correspond with main steet as much as ‘downtown’.

  9. a parallel term
    Thoroughfares?
    I’d quite like to drop in here Robert Venturi‘s 1966 comment about city planning (in Complexity & Contradiction In Architecture) that “main street is almost alright” (in the sense that signage etc. doesn’t spoil architecture, and we don’t necessarily need to demolish main street when we build the mall).

  10. term that indicates all the possibilities of street, boulevard, road, avenue and the like?
    Government regulations and databases (lot deeds, postal service, …) and things derived from them to use the rather prosaic “street name suffixes.”

  11. downtown
    Yes, I think you are right – high street would refer to area as well as the actual main street.
    In England they usually say ‘city centre’ or ‘town centre’, like ‘centre ville’. I can’t remember hearing anyone say ‘downtown’ in Britain in that sense.

  12. The thing is, Main Street wasn’t established in Boston (proper). The quotation from Samuel Sewall in the OED is talking about Charlestown. This was separate in colonial (Battle of Bunker Hill) times. Boston does have a High Street, which (together with Broad Street among those named after characteristics of the street and not something on it, where it went or after some person) is important in its commercial history.

  13. The European tradition of a two-tiered society was reinforced in their urban nomenclature, the Upper and Lower towns, “les beaux ou bas quartiers”. The strongly egalitarian American choice of “Main” may have been more socially motivated than the author of the article recognizes.

  14. Providence, Rhode Island, has a Main Street. More interestingly, it has a large number of streets named in the same happy spirit as the name of the city: Hope Street, Benefit Street, and Benevolent Street, for example. Stop me if I’ve told you this before, but the one called Friendship Street has been one-way for a number of years. True fact.

  15. J. W. Brewer says:

    Philadelphia has Market Street in lieu of Main Street, a pattern found elsewhere in the Middle Atlantic (e.g. Newark, N.J. and Wilmington, Del.).

  16. I can’t remember hearing anyone say ‘downtown’ in Britain
    No one except Petula Clark.

  17. David Marjanović says:

    From the “gender of coffee” thread:

    I do too, but the Kölsch lower classes don’t always. I can’t maintain the es for long, but probably not for the same reasons as you – my English roots, ya know.

    I thought about this today. I suspect what’s going on is that, in southern dialects, articles (which follow natural gender) are obligatory with personal names, so I have feminine gender in my head before I even get all the way to the word Mädchen.
    But maybe that’s not it. My sisters have masculine nicknames (not derived from their full names); those take masculine articles, but the pronouns still tend to switch at least as soon as the sentence is over.
    While I am at it, using articles with names reintroduces the long-lost distinction between nominative and vocative: the vocative is marked by lack of an article.

    I couldn’t finish Das siebte Kreuz, although I tried twice – maybe that was due to unreasonable pronoun deployment ?

    Heh. That’s not likely. I had to write a lengthy book report about it; I added an epilogue about how it is one of the few superfluous books (other than presumably the romance novels sold in supermarkets) that I’ve ever encountered.

  18. David Marjanović says:

    Oh, and, bathrobe, you’re right on the “strange maps” thread: it’s chà in the 4th tone, not “tea”, and you got the character right, too.
    The tones are always the first thing I forget after the characters.

  19. J. W. Brewer says:

    Beyond Petula Clark, I immediately thought of the Mott the Hoople recording of “Downtown” (not the same song Petula did, but a different one sometimes known by the fuller title “Come On Baby Let’s Go Downtown”). Of course that one had been written by an American (Neil Young’s early colleague Danny Whitten), while Petula’s had been written by a Brit – although per wikipedia a Brit who was at the relevant time visiting New York and hoping to pitch songs to American recording artists.
    On the other hand, David Bowie uses “downtown” in the lyrics of a song (“Kooks”) that does not appear to be a Brit trying to write in an affected American style. Quite to the contrary, as “downtown” is in the same verse of the song as the baffling-to-Americans BrE idiom “not much cop.”

  20. When I was a boy (not again, you cry) we said “walking along the High Street” or “walking along Port Street”; the only other local town thoroughfare that routinely took a “the” was The Vennel.
    Ah but; we had a High Road and a Low Road to the county town. They also took “the”, as the poet sings.

  21. Trond Engen says:

    DM: While I am at it, using articles with names reintroduces the long-lost distinction between nominative and vocative: the vocative is marked by lack of an article.
    (We’ve talked about this before, haven’t we?) Thire’s also a (disappearing) name article in North/Central Scandinavian. How does the genitive work in the German dialects? In Norwegian:
    Vocative: Ola!
    N./a./d.: han Ola (some dialects may still have a dative hono Ola vel. sim., but now I’m on thin ice)
    Genitive: hans Ola

  22. Ian Preston, while you will indeed end up in Oxford if you start on Oxford Street in London and travel west, I believe it’s called Oxford Street because the land it passed through was owned, coincidentally, by the Earl of Oxford, rather than because of the direction in which it pointed.
    Main Street UK: a quick look at Streetmap suggests that Main Street is rare to almost unknown in Southern England, only really starts to be found from the southern Midlands (ie Oxfordshire) up, and becomes commoner as one travels further north.
    Downtown: except for Petula, never used in British English.

  23. Zythophile: The evidence, I think, is that it was already named Oxford Street by the early 1700s, and before that Oxford Road, prior to the involvement of the Earl of Oxford. This history of the area, for example, says:

    The thoroughfare was formerly called the “Uxbridge Road,” “Tyburn Road,” and subsequently “Oxford Road,” as being the highway to Oxford.

    The eighteenth century development of the area by the Earl of Oxford does complicate the issue but whether or not it might have been renamed Oxford Street if it hadn’t already coincidentally borne his name is presumably moot. Neighbouring streets such as “Cavendish Square, Portland Place, and Henrietta, Harley, Wigmore, Mortimer, and Holles Streets” were indubitably named after him or members of his family but Oxford St was already “called indiscriminately by that name”.

  24. Herb Caen, a well-known San Francisco newspaper columnist, once commented that the difference between a small town and a big city was that in a big city, Main Street wasn’t.
    Incidentally, J. W. Brewer, San Francisco’s main street is also Market Street.

  25. The strongly egalitarian American choice of “Main” may have been more socially motivated than the author of the article recognizes.
    Is there any documented evidence for this? The observation seems interesting.
    Close
    Is the word used at all for street names in America? Residential clusters with no through way are refered to in Ukainian also as cul-de-sac. In France Impasse is often used as a street name, and in Russia the equivalent туп’ик (tupik, lit. dead-end) used to be wide-spread before city planning slowly changed. With funny names cropping up sometimes: Communist Tupik.

  26. Because of the shape of the island of Manhattan, for New Yorkers downtown is at the bottom end of the island* and has nothing to do with “downtown” which, if it exists at all, would be in midtown.
    *”New York, New York,it’s a hell of a town,
    The Bronx is up and the Battery’s down.”

  27. Close
    Is the word used at all for street names in America?

    No, and in fact very few Americans would know how to pronounce it.

  28. Close: Is the word used at all for street names in America? No
    No doubt it’s because of the separation of church & state.

  29. The Washington National Cathedral has a Close designed by Olmsted.

  30. marie-lucie says:

    I lived for a few months at a place on “Caxton Close”. I hated that name, but I never wondered about how to pronounce “Close”, and I still don’t know whether to use [s] or [z]. I think it is somewhere in the middle.

  31. marie-lucie: As a native of southern England only [s] seems possible to my intuitions.

  32. (FLO, Jr., I should have said.)

  33. I hadn’t realised Olmstead had children. I quite like this shelter designed by Jr.
    m-l listen to des, it’s [s].

  34. I’ve only heard [s] in that meaning.
    British Macmillan also says [s] – there is an audio thingy there. At entrances to English closes in addition to the usual ‘no through way’ road sign they often put up a smaller one saying cul-de-sac, where the French is used, I suspect, to avoid the unpleasantly sounding ‘dead end’. But on cul-de-sacs in France the smaller plaque says ‘sans issue’.

  35. marie-lucie: in BrE you can’t live “on” a close, only “in” it. although you would live “on the High Street”. “Close” (and I agree with Des that [s] is the pronunciation I know, although I’m southern English too), to Britons (or to me, anyway) implies a cul-de-sac, ie with only one way in or out.
    Ian Preston: I’d be more convinced by the “on the way to Oxford” argument if “road”, not “street”, wasn’t the normal ending for thoroughfares on the way to somewhere (and indeed, Oxford Street turns into Bayswater Road and then Uxbridge Road on its way west, being on the way to both those places); if any part of that road was still called “Oxford Road” before you get right out to Denham, over the (old) Middlesex border; and if any other main roads in London itself were named after the city they’re on the way to: even the A5 starts off as “Edgware Road”, and the A1 in London is nowhere called “York Road”.(The “old” York Road doesn’t even get to be the “Great North Road” until past Barnet …)
    Mind, there are more than 500 “London Roads” in Britain, most of which, my guess is, are indeed on the way to London.

  36. Mr. Wilton’s explanation for the New World embrace of “Main” as opposed to “High” is an example of lexicographic myopia. He consults his musty references but, just as faithfully, hasn’t synthesized the relevant socio-historical aspects of the dilemma. What accounts for this “lexical niche” suddenly opening up in North America? Why did the natives comprehensively dismiss the “High” street of their ancestors? He posits the idea that the meaning of “high” was being narrowed but goes no further. Yes, there was a need for street names in the New World. He votes for Darwinianism. Social engineering may have had a longer memory and the ability to cross oceans.

  37. The page to which Ian Preston linked, sourced from here, and this, explains that it was originally Oxford Road, and then renamed Street in honor of the second Earl, Edward.

  38. When I lived in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia in the 70s, none streets in the city had official names or street signs. As a result, they acquired unofficial names for where they went (Airport Road, Dammam Road, etc) or what was on them like Pepsi (pronounced bisi) Road because the Pepsi plant was there. Electronics Street had a number of stores selling radios, TVs and the like.
    Later, at some point, the roads were given official names, often named for kings, princes and the like.

  39. I’d never met “close” meaning a cul-de-sac until I moved to the southern half of England. In Scotland it means something like “lane” or “alley”; separately it’s sometimes used for the common entrance passage into a tenement (i.e. apartment block).

  40. marie-lucie says:

    Thanks to all native speakers for how to pronounce “close”. I can’t quite remember the place – I think the apartment was in a complex of low buildings around some sort of a square lawn.
    I did not use either “on” or “in” in my comment, but it is useful to know I should say “in C. Close”, should I ever need to mention it again.
    French cul-de-sac (pronounced [küdsak]).
    This word is never used for an impasse within a built-up area, but you would use it if for instance you are on a country path which ends unexpectedly (eg at a farm) and causes you to have to turn around and go back on your tracks.

  41. Bag-end, made famous by Tolkien, is also a word for cul-de-sac, and indeed, Bilbo Baggins’s pretentious relatives call themselves the Sackville-Bagginses, sack being a French borrowing whereas bag is probably native or near-native (it shows up in Middle English, Old Norse, Old French, Old Occitan, and mediaeval Latin, says the OED, but no other reflexes are known).
    [The] X Road as the name of the road to X is still very common in the U.S., at least in the east, enough so that you can rely on it for getting you from one town to another, though not typically by the quickest way.

  42. MMcM: The Loftie book you link to does state that the street was renamed in his honour but the Thornbury and Walford book seems to me to incline more towards the view that the name existed earlier. There’s a book here (Handbook of London: Past and Present by Peter Cunningham) that seems to switch from one view to the other in successive editions – the claim (p.371) in 1849 that “Oxford-street was called after the first earl of the family, better known as Mr Harley, Queen Anne’s Lord Treasurer” is removed (p.222) from the 1850 edition which considers evidence of earlier use and states (p.369) that Oxford Street is “so called from its being the highway from London to Oxford”.
    So far as I can see, the road known as Oxford Road or Tyburn Road was probably not much more than an undeveloped stretch of dirt track when the Earl of Oxford acquired it and land to the North through marriage to Henrietta Holles in 1713. The change of name to Oxford Street must have been associated with the building of houses that he initiated along it but the first row of these wasn’t completed until 1729 and the first recorded reference to Oxford Street seems to be in 1718.
    I wonder whether these stories are really incompatible. Maybe what happened is best thought of as a “repositioning” of an existing name.

  43. More than once I’ve heard “cul-de-sac” used in French to signify isolation, both geographically and in the sense of being cut off from the hurlu-burlu of modern life. An end of the line town, not even a way station between two points. Needless to say, the locals didn’t use the expression as a source of pride.

  44. Bag-end, made famous by Tolkien, is also a word for cul-de-sac, and indeed, Bilbo Baggins’s pretentious relatives call themselves the Sackville-Bagginses
    What a lovely little joke by Tolkien! Sackville is also the name of a rather prominent British noble family.

  45. More precisely, the Sackville-Wests are a branch of the Sackvilles (a few Sackvilles were Dukes of Dorset). And then there’s “sack” and “bag”.

  46. Wilton’s “transatlantic split” seems to take no account of Ireland which although on the same side of the ocean as Britain has main streets rather than high streets.

  47. Why the difference between the English and their historical satellites? A way of demarcating their aversion to an hierarchical urban ordering, to convey a more democratized commercial meaning to the principal business thoroughfare? In the origins of the words themselves you have the bourgeois “high” and the proletariat “main”, the lofty, aristocratic “high” and the squat, down to earth “main”.

  48. Hozo, how do you account for the US usage “highway”? It’s much more common than it is in England Is it less “bourgeois” and more “proletarian” than High Street?
    The OED has 1810 F. Cuming Sk. Tour Western Country 194 Main street, parallel to Water street, is one hundred feet wide  as the first citation of Main Street as a proper name rather than simply “the main street”, which is where it seems to have originated: 1598 Florio Worlde of Wordes 327/2 Rióne, a maine streete, a high way.    

  49. I imagined that “highway” (with perhaps a slightly different sense) was an old British usage. Highway robbery, highwaymen, … Or is that American stuff?

  50. Sorry to convolute the subject with my tortured thinking but what can we make of “to take the high” road or way in the figurative sense? Was surprised to read that in that context, when used in England, “high road’ or “high way” means to take the easy way rather than the more accepted moral or ethical connotation. Plenty of wealthy merchants would have made their fortunes along the high street. Rather too easy for the long-memoried lowly plebiaens, in the main?

  51. Highwayman, highway robbery are used in Britain. I can’t remember if you say “highway code” in the US? But highway isn’t used for “motorways” any longer in Britain as it is in the US.
    Hoz, there’s definitely a judgmental implication that comes with high and low (though I’ve never heard of anyone too snooty to enjoy a walk on the beach at low tide, for example), but there is too with “main”: “main man”, “eye to the main chance” etc.

  52. In the US highway can mean (at least) two slightly different things. Over here if I choose not to travel on what Brits would call the motorway (i.e. a big fast road untrammeled by traffic signals and stop signs — a “limited-access highway” — in many cases part of the Interstate Highway System — what a Californian might call the freeway), I might express that by saying that I’m not taking the highway. But the lesser thoroughfare that I choose instead might well be a “state highway”.

  53. “when used in England, “high road’ or “high way” means to take the easy way rather than the more accepted moral or ethical connotation”: I’ve never met that use in my life. Someone’s pulling your leg, or you’re pulling ours.

  54. FWIW, just below the bit about Dewey and Truman, not very substantial I concur.
    http://www.phrases.org.uk/bulletin_board/47/messages/498.html

  55. I think there is a hierarchy of names for passageways. In the U.S., I think generally:
    – A highway is a major passageway linking cities.
    – A road is a major passageway within a city or a less important inter-city link.
    – A street/boulevard/avenue is a passageway within a city linking areas within the city
    – A lane is a neighborhood passageway.
    I am sure there are many exceptions for historical reasons (i.e. once was X, but no longer is, but retaining the name).

  56. high and mighty, highfalutin, highflyer, get on the high horse, high-nosed, high-roller, to be on the high ropes, high-sniffing, high-stomached, high-toned – all expressions denoting pretentiousness or arrogance. Why wouldn’t the High-Streeters be seen in the same way?
    Came across the expression High-Pad>/i> or High-Toby-Splice old English slang for highway. 1876 Adventures of a Cheap Jack “Halting for a few hours at mid-day during the heat in the High-Splice-Toby, as we used to call the main road”. The original highwaymen at work along the by-ways of the soon to be less fortunate, visions of Monty Python dancing in my head! Not all roads were paved with gold in those days, but the ones travelled upon by the kingly types went straight down the High Street.

  57. high and mighty, highfalutin, highflyer, get on the high horse, high-nosed, high-roller, to be on the high ropes, high-sniffing, high-stomached, high-toned – all expressions denoting pretentiousness or arrogance. Why wouldn’t the High-Streeters be seen in the same way?
    a) There is no such animal as a High Streeter.
    b) There’s nothing pretentious or arrogant implied in “high flyer”, “high toned” or “high roller”.
    c) I’ve never even heard “high sniffing”, “high nosed”, “high stomached” or “the high ropes”.
    d) Most phrases that include “high” (including many of the ones you’ve given as examples) have nothing to do with either arrogance or pretentiousness.

  58. mollymooly says:

    “Ireland which although on the same side of the ocean as Britain has main streets rather than high streets.”
    Weeell, Irish towns will have a main street rather than a high street, but it won’t be called Main Street. Most likely it will be called O’Connell Street.
    A few of Cork’s streets take “the”: “the South Mall”, but “South Main Street”; optionally “(the) Grand Parade”; and of course “the Coal Quay”, pronounced /də ˈkǒːl̩ kêː/

  59. AJP Town @ “There is no such animal as a High Streeter.”
    Yet, someone can live on Easy Street or on the other side of the tracks on Poor Street or Brokedown Avenue.
    “There’s nothing pretentious or arrogant implied in “high flyer”, “high toned” or “high roller”.”
    Not if you’re Donald Trump or Bernie Madoff I suppose.
    “I’ve never even heard “high sniffing”, “high nosed”, “high stomached” or “the high ropes”.
    Can’t be of assistance on that account
    “Most phrases that include “high” (including many of the ones you’ve given as examples) have nothing to do with either arrogance or pretentiousness.”
    Might want to get out of Town and visit the bright lights more often.

  60. Can’t be of assistance
    No, I didn’t think so.
    Might want to get out of Town and visit the bright lights
    On the high street? No thanks.
    Neither Trump nor Madoff are or were “high flyers”, “high toned” or “high rollers”, were they? They are or were just arrogant and pretentious, in a naive sort of way. You’d be better off saying that the Donald builds high-rise hotels and gets high ratings for his tv show (though in fairness he also displays a low cunning).
    Many people get high without displaying arrogance or pretentiousness; it all depends what drugs you’re taking.

  61. @mollymooly
    Weeell, Irish towns will have a main street rather than a high street, but it won’t be called Main Street. Most likely it will be called O’Connell Street
    You have been misinformed.
    I can assure you that Ireland has a great number of main streets called Main Street and comparatively few called O’Connell Street.
    Since you mention it, Cork’s main street was indeed Main Street (North and South) before land reclamation moved the city centre eastwards.

  62. mollymooly says:

    Thanks cm, I stand very corrected!

  63. Hey, mollymooly, would you be interested in a job translating Irish into French? If so, drop me a line. (The person who asked me about it can’t do it, and neither can I.)

  64. I can’t do it either.

  65. Thanks hat, I would be interested except I’m sure I’m not up to the task. Breifne prolly knows some likelier people if he’s lurking.

  66. It’s possible to call the southernmost part of Manhattan (really the southwesternmost part, in compass terms) “downtown”, but it’s more normal to call it “the financial district”. “Uptown” and “downtown” to a Manhattanite are not regions but directions synonymous with “north” and “south” (as I say, northeast and southwest). The song Crowntown quotes means that the Bronx is uptown from all of Manhattan and the Battery is downtown from all the rest of Manhattan.

Speak Your Mind

*