I’m still reading Salonica, City of Ghosts: Christians, Muslims and Jews 1430-1950 by Mark Mazower (and liking it more and more), and I reached a section on street names that pushed my buttons and that I want to share here. This is from the section “Naming the Mahala,” which starts on p. 227:

The old streets within the walls were tortuous, narrow, and mostly unnamed. There were no maps and navigation was difficult for strangers… Residents were classified by Ottoman officials, and identified themselves, by their neighborhood (mahala) whose nicknames made no sense to outsiders. Kaldigroç was a corruption of the Judeo-Spanish Kal de los Gregos, the Street of the Greeks; Bedaron, an abbreviation of the synagogue Beth Aron. There was the “Quarter of the Three Eggs”—named after a decorated marble slab on the façade of an old house—”At the Fire” (after an especially bad one) and “Defterdar,” because a treasurer of the province had once lived there. Other neighbourhoods were known after local places of worship and their nicknames. There was the “Red Mosque,” the “Mosque of the Clocktower” and the “Burned Monastery” district, from the destruction caused by a Venetian bombardment two centuries earlier. The Ashkenazic synagogue was known as “Russia” or “Moscow,” Poulia as Macarron, from its members’ supposed fondness for pasta; the salt-farmers’ synagogue, Shalom, was called Gamello, after the camels who carried the salt (but also local slang for a dullard or idiot)…

Places thus acquired names according to an entirely locally generated logic. Many small alleys and cul-de-sacs were nameless, or known by such helpful terms as “Rocky Place,” or “Behind the Square of the Graveyard.” Larger streets changed name several times as they wound their way past mosques and shrines…

But at the very end of the nineteenth century, this localized way of naming space was challenged by new conceptions of what place-names should do… The municipality eventually issued the first street names [i.e., official markers] in May 1898, although their usefulness for strangers was initially limited by their being written only in Turkish. A more fundamental problem was that those choosing the new names had not properly understood the logic which was supposed to lie behind them. It was as well they had only been in Turkish—for what would Europeans have made of the “Street that Leads to Miltiades’ Coffeeshop,” or the “Street of the Greengrocer Constantine”? Local journalists tried to explain to the authorities the error of their ways:

We know that in Europe streets are given names of celebrated men whose memory it is wished to honour or those of noble citizens who have rendered useful service to their country. But we do not see how the said Constantine with his plums and his bad coffee, or M. Miltiadis, pouring out his raki, can raise the prestige of the city so far as to be honoured by the municipal scribe

In Europe, squares and wide avenues carry as an honorific title the dates of national triumphs, the names of cities where the national army covered itself in glory, or where great generals are illustrated: the Boulevard Magenta and the Avenue de la Grande Armée in Paris, the Strada Manin in Venice, Trafalgar Square in London, are monuments which speak to the hearts of patriots. Each crossroads is a lesson and History is written on the walls. And is the history of our dear country so lacking in these glorious occasions? [“Les noms de Rues,” Journal de Salonique, 26 May 1898]

One conception of the past—the past which linked the city dweller’s pride in his country to that in his city—was coming to impose itself on another—the past as local memory. No longer was it thought appropriate to commemorate random fires, the Old Horsemarket, the Old Quarantine, the Pasha’s Baths or the Old Telegraph Station. Emperors, notable officials and elevated political values would be written over the plane trees, the bath-towel makers and the religious benefactors of the past who had made the city their own. These names were stamped with the authority of the new municipal bodies and conformed to European norms. Ironically, although they were more transparent than those they replaced, they proved far less durable. In the twentieth century, wars, revolutions and sudden changes of regime led names to be discarded and replaced with ever-increasing frequency. The civil servants and bureaucrats were kept busy, but the city’s inhabitants were left little if any better off than they had been before.

How I hate those modern names, the Street of the 37th of Octember, the Avenue of Marshal X, the Boulevard of Our Glorious National Uprising! If countries can’t inspire loyalty without that kind of propaganda, they don’t deserve it. Better cities should commemorate the long-gone inns, horse markets, and residents who made them what they are than try to keep up with the twists and turns of politics. Long live the Quarter of the Three Eggs!


  1. Reykjavík has an assortment of odd streetnaming traditions. The old part of the city have historical names that by now have become pleasingly nonsensical. Lækjargata (Creek Road), even though no creek runs through it anymore, Austurvöllur (East Field), even though it is downtown and downtown is on the western side of the city and Laugarvegur (Pools Way) even though the hot springs it takes its name from no longer exist. However, most of the city was built after the advent of central, municipal planning. Most neighborhoods have an x+a pattern, where a is a set word from which the neighborhood gets its name, and x is a changing prefix, usually, but not always, thematically linked. For instance, I once lived in the neighborhood hlíðahverfi. Hlíð means slope and hverfi neighborhood. Every street in the neighborhood had the suffix “-hlíð.” I lived on Eskíhlíð (Ash Slope, as in the tree) and some other streets were Reykjahlíð (Smoke Slope) and Grænahlíð (Green Slope). To give an example of a neighborhood with thematically linked street names there’s hólahverfi. Hólar is the plural of hóll, hill. Every street in the neighborhood has as a prefix the word for a species of bird. So you have Máshólar (Seagull Hills), Krummahólar (Raven Hills) and Spóahólar (Whimbrel Hills). There are more interesting wrinkles, such as neighborhoods which illustrate plotpoints from the Icelandic sagas. There are streets called Bjarnarstígur and Kárastígur, named after characters from Njal’s Saga, Björn and Kári. Björn is a cowardly man, who always stands behind Kári in fights. Bjarnarstígur is behind Kárastígur. Perhaps most interestingly, street naming has been used as a weapon in linguistic scuffles. One street was named Þúsöld to get publicity for a neologism for “millenium”. The old word for millenium, árþúsund, was thought inadequate by some people so a number of alternatives were proposed, and the person in charge of naming the streets in this new neighborhood was in favor of þúsöld, so he named the street that. It was broadly successful as a tactic. Of the new words, þúsöld is by far the most common, though it hasn’t displaced árþúsund.

  2. Although not as colourful as the local names of Salonica, I am pleased to have found myself living amongst streets named after literary giants as opposed to military or political figures.
    In the neighbouring suburbs of St Kilda and Elwood in Melbourne, Australia, we have Shakespeare Grove, Chaucer Street, Spenser Street, Dickens Street, Wordsworth Street, Addison Street, Shelley Street, Byron Street, Thackeray Street, Meredith Street, Tennyson Street, Coleridge Street, Burns Street and probably a few more that I’ve missed.
    They’re all here, in the section near the water on this map:
    the literary streets

  3. In the city where I grew up (Hamilton, New Zealand) there was a group of streets all named after poets. We called the area Poet’s Corner. I am afraid it was not a good neighbourhood, and even now it is well-known for poverty and violence, particularly around Tennyson St. If Tennyson St were named according to the Ottoman scheme, it would be called “Postal-Workers-Are-Scared-To-Deliver Street”.

  4. “If countries can’t inspire loyalty without that kind of propaganda, they don’t deserve it. ”
    I’m with that 100%. Leave names to the locals who know best! You end up with more colour, more interesting names that way.
    On a related topic, I live in Japan, where streets in general don’t get names; instead, neighbourhoods and intersections have names, though, and often quite old ones that predate the modern cities.

  5. I remember the political kerfuffle that erupted here in San Francisco when we decided to rename Army Street as César Chávez Street. As far as I know there was no such hue and cry when Lawrence Ferlinghetti convinced us to rename a dozen of our streets after some of our more popular writers.
    Our history doesn’t go back all that far, but after a few fits and starts we seem to be on a decent track.

  6. In Jersey, proposed new road names have to be approved by the voters of the parish concerned. I maintain a page on road names in Jersey (including some of the bilingual pairs):
    The story behind the picture at the top of the page showing the name “L’Avenue et Dolmen du Pré des Lumières” is as follows:
    Only a few years ago a new road was built through part of the old gasworks site. The gasworks had been built on the site of a marshy water-meadow called “Le Pré des Lumières” (due to the will o’ the wisp). The highway authority (of which I’m an elected member) proposed that the name of the new road should be “La Rue des Lumières” (fairly short and snappy and historically apt as it would refer to the will o’ the wisp folklore and the origin of gas lighting). However, when we put this proposal to voters it was voted down and instead the voters supported an amendment to name the road after the prehistoric site (a stone avenue and dolmen) which lies beneath the land. We pointed out that the name was far too long as an address, but the voters had their way. Long live democracy!

  7. Jenny Islander says

    In my town, many roads, lakes, and beaches have two names: the one on the map and the one people actually use, which tends to be more practical. For instance, White (at low tide and if there hasn’t been a storm) Sands Beach is really End-of-the-Road (which doesn’t change quite so easily) Beach and West Rezanof Drive is the Base-Town Road. Several mellifluously named subdivisions are covered under the name Woodless Acres, which describes what happens when you put houses and streets in a dense second-growth forest and then get a windstorm.
    Then there’s the local humor. At one time the bridge in the middle of town was named–official green metal sign and all–after a dog who jumped off it to his death, partly as a pointed reminder to the owners of the dog; people said half-jokingly that the poor thing had committed suicide. And when a certain government official, name of Pugh, left town, certain folks decided to name a heretofore unnamed avenue in his honor.
    It’s really a long driveway that ends at the fish meal processing plant.

  8. David Marjanović says

    The old word for millenium, árþúsund, was thought inadequate by some people
    What could anyone have against that word? German: Jahrhundert, Jahrtausend, Jahrzehntausend, Jahrhunderttausend, Jahrmillion, Jahrmilliarde. Admittedly, the order of the parts of the compound is counterintuitive, but the above words are the only for their meanings in German.
    Incidentally, I have second-hand anecdotal evidence that on a newly built street somewhere in northeastern Vienna someone put up a sign “Hundstrümmerlgasse”, Dog Droppings Lane, and that that name became official for a short time. Would have been a bad name. Just about every street in Vienna could be given this name. Too ambiguous.

  9. David Marjanović says

    Oh! Did I open a blockquote tag? So this site takes blockquote? Great! 🙂

  10. When I was in Jordan in the 1970s, the only address for our apartment block was “go towards Third Circle, take the first right after the ‘Blue Hilton’ (the Secret Police headquarters), go past Ahmed Toukan’s house and then left until you get to the Grocery Rosa, it’s in a garage for the apartments.”
    Of course everyone knew that Ahmed Toukan was a senior advisor to the king and where he lived.
    Which is why everyone used Post Office boxes for their post …

  11. I can’t for the life of me remember why árþúsund was considered no good. Trying to put myself into the mindset of the kind of person who gets in a huff about this kind of thing I think that the problem was that árþúsund isn’t “consistent” with the word for century, which is öld. Now personally I couldn’t care less, but some people can’t be helped. Also, I bet some people got their panties in a twist over it being a “loanword” even though its first recorded use is in the 18th Century, but that’s just a kind of cultural idiocy that’s endemic to Iceland.

  12. I’m glad no country has enough glorious dates and generals and what have you to name every street in a city after them. This is indeed a much better way of doing it, although it’s not always quite as interesting as in Salonica.
    The best local thing I can come up with on my own is that my parents’ house (in a small town in Mecklenburg, northeast Germany) is on Weinbergstraße, Vineyard Street, because there used to be vineyards on the hill there. Local legend has it that Napoleon ordered them closed after tasting the horrible wine they produced, but for a number of reasons (such as the fact that they remained in operation until about 1850) this is just a little bit dubious. However, some people still grow wine in their gardens, the quality of which when converted into drinkable form is indeed likely to inspire this sort of legend, I’m told.
    (Another mildly amusing fact is that this hill, which rises a magnificent 20 meters or so above the little lake around which the town is built, is now usually named Sonnenberg, i.e. Sun Mountain.)

  13. Kari T., we have a soft spot for language cranks around here. Apparently the Icelanders are evn crankier than the Norsk. Perhaps we will someday give them a prize of some sort.

  14. I’m not sure if I view these Australian and New Zealand suburbs in exactly the same sympathetic light. True, it’s better to name streets after poets than revolutionary generals, but the practice of using themes (such as flowers, poets, birds, etc.) to name streets is a result of the need to literally mass-produce names for new suburbs. The unimaginativeness of many of these housing estates is well captured by J. K. Rowling in the references to ‘Privet Drive’ and ‘Magnolia Crescent’ in Harry Potter.
    Here where I live, a ‘development area’ (read ‘industrial park’) in the suburbs of Beijing, the streets are completely unmemorable if auspicious combinations of Chinese characters. They are so unmemorable that it’s easy to get lost among the streets. I can only quote a few from memory (as I said, they’re unmemorable!): 宏达, 文昌, 同济, with meanings like ‘broad achievement’ ‘cultural prosperity’ ‘together assistance’ — the meanings are often so vacuous that they don’t mean much at all.
    I should point out that the practice of ‘regularising’ or ‘tidying up’ place names is also very much an ongoing process in Japan. It’s often said that Japanese cities are difficult because the system works on blocks rather than streets. I believe it was a lot more chaotic, but easier to understand, in the past, before everything was tidied up. Let me clarify that with the example of ‘Sakae-machi’ or ‘Sakae-dōri’ — Sakae Street (I forget the exact name, the character is 栄 meaning ‘prosperity’) near Shibuya station in Tokyo. This was a street that ran from 109 Fashion Building up towards the present-day Tokyu department store. Old maps show it as a narrow neighbourhood straddling the street. That has all gone. Sakae has long been absorbed into the block-like agglomerations (chō) that bureaucrats created to ‘tidy things up’. I don’t know what Sakae-dori was like in its heyday. Presumably a bustling shopping street. Now, if my memory is correct, one side of Sakae-dōri belongs to one chō; the other side belongs to another. One wonders how many other place names have disappeared in the ‘regularisation’ of place names in Japan.

  15. We have these dreadful themed street names in areas where the official names preceded the people. Where the people came first, we still have evocative, or at least descriptive names. There are many New Zealand place names which are intelligible Maori and refer to local events or features (my favourites being Whakatane “like a man”, Paraparaumu “where the earth ovens were made ready” and Kaitangata “eat people”). And lots of rural roads also rejoice in functional names (Quarry Road, The Deviation, Desert Road, Old Mountain Road, Longswamp).
    If only the Bank of England were still on Gropecunte Lane.

  16. In the Dutch city of Geldrop they named the streets in a quarter of a suburb for characters out of Tolkien. I dunno… as a 17-years old I might have moved there for sheer delight. Now I actually think it’s a bit corny. I’d expect people in long black dresses with pointy ears to live there.

  17. True, it’s better to name streets after poets than revolutionary generals, but the practice of using themes (such as flowers, poets, birds, etc.) to name streets is a result of the need to literally mass-produce names for new suburbs.
    I entirely agree. Better poets than generals, but far better to have organic names that grow out of lived experience, even if it’s Dogshit Road.

  18. Themed names isn’t a new practice. Portland OR has a section of Presidential-theme street names and another setion of tree names. Any large development bloc is susceptible to theming.
    Portland also has or used to have a couple of oddly descriptive names — Going Street and Failing School.

  19. Or do what New York does: A number of streets, or even portions of streets, have dual-signage. Generally, these are honorific namings appended to the old and still-generally-used name. Generally, these sub-names are for a stretch of a few blocks and they’re never used for naviation or addresses. An example — Worth, between Centre and the park, is “Avenue of the Strongest”. Noone cares.
    Worth noting: “New York’s Strongest” is the Department of Sanitation.

  20. Well, in response to Stephen Judd above, something may have been lost but the Bank of England is at the junction of Poultry (where poultry were once sold), Threadneedle Street (for millinery), and Cornhill (it’s the highest hill in the area) which are all informative names in themselves.
    In Britain we’re marking 200 years since the worldwide abolition of slavery in British colonies in 1807 (it happened earlier in mainland Britain) and to commemorate it the Liverpool City Councillors have debated abolishing all of Liverpool Streets named after slave-trading families. Caused quite a stir as the Beatles’ Penny Lane would have been one of them: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/pages/live/articles/news/news.html?in_article_id=394808&in_page_id=1770

  21. There is an opinio the authors of this phenomenon (renaming of perfect local names &c) are XT in origin.
    Don’t know ’bout you, it makes perfect sense to me.

  22. I understand Threadneedle St IS the former Gropecunte Lane. I’m not sure if there is some sort of euphemistic metaphor going on there or not.

  23. Extraterrestrials works for me.

  24. We may have lost Gropecunte Lane, but London still has a good collection of streenames, old and new:
    Brick Lane, Bread Street, Cheapside, The Cut, Electric Avenue, Fashion Street, Fenchurch Street, Gipsy Hill, Houndsditch, Ironmonger Lane, Jewry, Milk Street, Old Street, Poultry, Seven Sisters Road, Skinners Lane….
    I could go on; instead have a look at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Streets_in_London or consult a map of the City.

  25. Yes, my impression is that London is about the best of the big cities at preserving old street names. Paris still has quite a few, but the nineteenth century wiped out scads of wonderful old names; I can’t recommend strongly enough (to those interested in such things) Jacques Hillairet’s Dictionnaire historique des rues de Paris (in two volumes), which has an index of disused names that can cause a sob to well up in the nostalgically inclined as one turns the pages: where now are the rue du Pet-au-Diable (‘Devil’s Fart Road’), the r. du Petit-Hurleur and the r. du Petit-Huys de la Foire, the r. du Pied-de-Biche and the r. du Pied-de-Boeuf, the place des Trois-Maries and the r. des Trois-Maures? How I hate rational, civic-minded planners!

  26. What’s a “scad”?

  27. It’s another word for an oodle.

  28. David Marjanović says

    It’s often said that Japanese cities are difficult because the system works on blocks rather than streets.

    Not so in Beijing. There, every street has a name. It’s just usually not written anywhere. I had a plan, and it still took me maybe an hour to find the youth hostel, even though it was close to several big roads.

  29. Ah, but you forget the names of the old hutong in Beijing, which are often very plebeian and have very historic roots.
    This site gives a brief rundown of the origins of the names of hutong:
    But then, these two sites point out that some of those old names have been tinkered with by the kind of fuddy-duddies that Languagehat finds so objectionable. Try these:
    The old quarter of Hanoi is also filled with streets named after the shops that used to cluster there.

  30. Your blog came my way thru a google alert for
    Avenue of the Strongest. I guess it’s proof that
    while the person made the comment that noone
    cared, someone surely will find meaning in the
    smallest of things.
    On Sept.11th I shared a photo studio eight blocks
    north of the Towers. I had been practicing a new
    style of shooting landscapes where I would overlap
    the images to create single large images made up
    of several, sometimes ten or more photographs to
    create a single large one. On September 11th I shot the last image of the pedestrian bridge that
    connected World Trade Center 5 and 6 to 7.
    One evening on my way back from my favorite place to cry,the Brooklyn Bridge, I had just come off
    the bridge when I happened to look up and saw the street titled Avenue of the Strongest. At that instant I knew I had found what would be
    the title of the exhibit.
    I decided right away against the idea of selling
    the images but I’ve exhibited them some twenty
    or so times. My next exhibit opens in Texas,
    just north of San Antonio Monday the 26th of
    Feb. This exhibit will be my biggest yet, twenty
    images 6 feet wide by 10 – 12 feet tall.
    You can see sveral of the images at
    Anyone who would like, if you email me I’ll
    send you a print or two.
    My name is Mark Roddenberry and if you google
    search my name you’ll see lots of sites about
    the exhibits. Use quotation marks and you’ll
    see lots more sites.
    I love that street name, it seems perfect in
    its sense of rebellion.
    Feel free to write if you’d like.

  31. The Pet-au-Diable was a large stone, roughly pumpernickel-shaped, frequently vandalized by the students of the Sorbonne ca. 1460; see Wyndham Lewis’s biography of Francois Villon, who claimed that one of his fellow delinquents (Guy Tabarie, IIRC) had written a long poem about it.

  32. Not Wyndham Lewis, but D. B. Wyndham-Lewis. I’m sensitive to the distinction because I bought that Villon bio under the misapprehension it was by the Vorticist and friend of Ezra Pound.

  33. You can’t always trust locals to pick a worthwhile name. The main drag of Queen Charlotte, Haida Gwaii, was Provincial Highway 33. The Provincial Ministry of Transportation and Highways decided to dedesignate the highway since there is another one in the province and I suppose they felt their filing system was being screwed up. They let the residents of Queen Charlotte choose a new name.
    They chose Oceanview Drive. Now this may be logical in Cannery Row and other places in the U. S. Here the view is of an inlet and mountains block the sight of the ocean.
    There is a hidden logic to it though. There are no seas on the Northwest Coast and the inner waters have always been called the ocean by the white folks who settled here.

  34. A final gasp after all these years. I recently came to realise that the authorities in China (emperors and the like) have always felt it was their right to give auspicious new names to places and institutions to mark some particular occasion. A simple example can be seen at the article on the Summer Palace on Wikipedia, although the changes were understandable since it really was an imperial park. But if you read any potted histories of local sights in China (perhaps more in Beijing than elsewhere) you’ll find plenty of examples where such-and-such a temple was originally named (something auspicious), but in xx year it was renamed (something else auspicious). Renaming things seems to have been a bit of a hobby.

  35. Your final comment immediately brought to mind the book ‘USSR: From an original idea by Karl Marx’ (which I am amazed to discover still appears to be in print http://www.faber.co.uk/work/ussr/9780571281572/). Having spent a year in the Soviet Union as a Russian language student in 1985/86, the book brilliantly describes how utterly ludicrous and unintentionally hilarious life was in that benighted country at the time and how everyday interaction between Soviets and Western students was a never-ending source of amusement to a shallow teenager. I was sent to Kyiv (until we had to leave for obvious reasons) and then Voronezh where Westerners were a very rare commodity. My God, we were all awful students, always bunking off class and hustling on the streets. I learnt great 1980s Russian/Ukrainian which did not impress my very elderly émigré Russian examiner in my oral exam.
    One page I always remember from that book is the typical layout of any Soviet city: the central ‘Victory Square’ leading onto ‘Lenin Avenue’ and ‘Karl Marx Avenue’ then ‘Boulevard of the Unstinting Strugglers for Peace’, ‘Boulevard of Friendship of Nations‘, ‘Anniversary of October Street’, ’1905 Street’, ‘Peace Square’, ‘Street named after some 17th century English Proto-Socialist you’ve never heard of’, ‘Ball Bearing Street’, ‘Sheetmetal Workers’ Street’, and, ever my favourite, ‘Boulevard of something so utterly sycophantic as to defy the imagination’ epitomized in my mind by the ‘Boulevard of L.I. Brezhnev’s third V.I. Lenin award for literature’ in Kyiv. I wonder what it is called now?

  36. Thanks for the tip, I’ve just ordered a copy! (Used paperbacks go for a penny plus shipping.)

  37. Well, I am actually rather fond of Manhattan’s numbered streets and avenues. They may not be colorful or picturesque, but they make it easy to find your way about. Downtown and the Village, where streets are named, just wind up being hard to negotiate. Many have wondered how to find Jones St., or confused it with Great Jones St., but few have known or cared who the Jones brothers-in-law were.

    Of course, there’s the fact that Madison Square Garden is no longer located in Madison Square.

  38. A 1910 map of Tashkent:


    A current map:


  39. Unrelated: I just happened on nakuruitis and mentally went on supply the married and unmarried female forms: Nakuruitenė, Nakuruititė.

  40. Ha!

  41. David Marjanović says

    I finally revisited this thread. The Boulevard of L.I. Brezhnev’s third V.I. Lenin award for literature was worth it all by itself.

  42. Yes, that makes me laugh every time I read the comment.

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