A NY Times story by David W. Dunlap in today’s Metro section, “Restoring Elegance Underfoot on a Street Long Past Its Prime” (about the restoration of the cobblestone surface of Bond Street), ends with the following admirable paragraph:

What New Yorkers call cobblestones are more accurately described as Belgian blocks — true cobblestones being rounded and irregular — but saying so is the province of a scold. And it is probably no more effective than insisting that the horse-drawn carriages on Central Park South are not hansom cabs.

That’s what I try to do here on Languagehat: provide accurate information without pretending that accuracy is always to be worshiped. I’m glad to know the correct term is “Belgian blocks,” but I will go on calling them cobblestones, just as I call tsunamis tidal waves. Let them scold who will!


  1. I’m remembering the stones which came as ballast on ships from Scotland to Memphis. These were used to pave the landing between “Mud Island” and the Bluff. Does anyone who knows Memphis also know if these are Belgian blocks?

  2. Robert Staubs says

    RE: Memphis
    They’d probably be cobblestones if they came off of a ship—those tend to be just a lot of irregular rocks. Though I suppose blocks make as good ballast as anything.

  3. I have no idea about Belgian Blocks or the paving of New York, bit here in Edinburgh the regular rectangular stones (or wooden blocks) used to cobble a street are called setts

  4. Thanks, that’s a new one on me. It’s the OED’s def. 29 of the first noun set (not specified as Scottish — I wonder how widespread it is?):
    29. (Usually sett.) A squared stone (chiefly granite) used for paving.
    1871 WILLIAMSON Science Lect. Ser. II. 98 Those square stones which I think are technically called ‘sets’. 1880 Daily News 7 Dec. 6/3 One of the small steamers which trade with setts from the quarries. Ibid. 9 Dec. 1/3 A sett stone quarry. 1905 Academy 9 Sept. 935/1 The streets used to be paved with setts taken from the black marble quarry.

  5. I thought after that looooong discussion we’ve established already that tsunamis are not tidal waves since they have nothing to do with moon cycle; however, to call them seismic ocean waves will be correct.
    Slightly OT: wooden blocks are still used here in US for paving; not streets though. I’ve seen it used to floor loading dock of a printing Co in NYC and small manufacturing shops.
    Historically, streets of St. Peterburg were paved with wooden blocks (Торцы) placed on the substrate of logs. Which, as you can imagine, were not designed for use by anything heavier than the horse carriages, and in swampy (is that a word?) soil condition of the city, with customary periodic floods, that paving material proved to be unsafe:
    …Наводнение 23 сентября 1924 г. было вторым по силе за всю историю города и уничтожило почти целиком все труды Откомхоза последних лет. Основным уличным покрытием города в то время были торцы – деревянные шашки, уложенные на основание из бревен. Из-за наводнения почти все торцовые мостовые, в том числе и только что настланные, всплыли, и больше половины торцов Нева унесла в море. Когда вода схлынула, многие дворы были буквально забиты шашками. Улицы представляли нагромождение торцов, бревен, снесенных киосков и заборов. Над старой канализацией образовалось больше 3000 провалов, многие деревянные канализационные колодцы завалились…

  6. Cobblestones such as we have in north east of England. We wouldn’t call your setts cobblestones, but we defend to the hilt your right to call them what you will.

  7. The one thing that all these discussions leave out is the audience. It’s wrong to insist on fine distinctions in casual speech, but it’s just as wrong to insist that fine distinctions are of no use whatsoever. If an architect, a marine geologist, and an oceanographer are discussing safety factors for shoreline construction, I expect them to distinquish between large waves caused by seismic events, and large waves caused by tidal actions and geography.
    Similarly, if I’m calling paving contractors to estimate the cost of a historical street renovation, I’d better know the difference between cobbles, setts, and Belgian block if I want my estimates to mean anything.
    (As an aside, I always enjoy the speech of traditional tradesmen like stonemasons and carpenters. It’s often full of words which we throw around casually or metaphorically, yet which have precise, distinct meanings within their trade, and those distinctions have to be preserved in order for the work to get done.)
    I don’t think it counts as prescriptivist scolding to recognize that different levels of distinction are appropriate in different contexts.

  8. As someone who’s been in a cab going bump-diddy-BUMP-bump not only on Bond St. but on extreme West 14th St., I have no hesitation in describing the stones as, if not rounded, certainly irregular as all hell.
    My favorite example of trade precision: Stephen Jay Gould being corrected by a waterman for using the informal scientific term clam to refer to a mollusk other than Mya arenaria: “A clam is a clam, a quahog is a quahog, and a scallop is a scallop.”

  9. In the process of replacing the dead Bond Street link in the post with a Wikipedia one, I note that the article vindicates Iain L (see comment above): “Bond Street is a sett street…”

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