Stupid Question ™
Dec. 26, 2002
By John Ruch
Q: What is the difference between a road, a street, an avenue and a lane?
—Ronn L. Rickett
A: Not much today, especially in the suburbs and industrial parks where most new streets are built and named with maximum cutey-pie-ness.
But historically, these are all significantly distinct terms.
“Street” has seniority. It’s straight from Old English stræt, which goes back to a Germanic adoption of Late Latin strata, the term for those great paved roads that all led to Rome. (Strata is the past participle of sternere, meaning to “level” or “pave,” and is related to our geological term “strata,” meaning a layer of rock.)
By about AD 1000, “street” referred specifically to wide paths in towns, as opposed to alleys.
“Road” has traveled a stranger path. An Old English word, it sprang from the same Germanic roots as “ride” and originally meant “to ride on horseback” or a trip made that way.
Around 900 we find it used specifically to refer to an attack conducted on horseback—what we now call, after a Scottish twist on pronunciation, a “raid.”
In Middle English, the meaning generalized to refer to sea journeys. But it was only in the late 1500s that it suddenly showed up in the modern meaning of a wide, land-based path, not the trip you make on one.
Why this happened is unclear. The “Oxford English Dictionary” notes that the equivalent term in other Germanic languages underwent a similar meaning shift. It also suggests the influence of such Old English terms as hweolrad (“wheel-track”).
“Avenue” is straight French for “approach,” from Old French advenir (“to come to”). Fittingly for a French word, it implies quality.
It entered English around 1600 as a generic term for any sort of passageway, though it particularly applied to entryways and exits and was especially a military term.
But around 1650, the English began using it specifically to refer to the long, fancy and typically tree-lined roads leading up to country estates. It continues to imply a grand, wide roadway, especially following the impressive avenues of Paris constructed in the 1870s.
Despite such particulars, “street,” “road” and “avenue” have also been used generically and metaphorically over the centuries.
“Lane,” on the other hand, has had a relatively restricted meaning from the start. It’s pretty much unchanged from its Germanic roots and has always meant a narrow passage between houses or natural obstacles. Even its later, generic usages retain the sense of narrowness, such as shipping lanes, or the traffic lanes we now paint onto roads, streets and avenues.
For clarity, old-time city planning sometimes dictated the use of these terms. For example, Manhattan’s north-south roads are “avenues,” while the east-west roads are “streets.” Today, planners tend to focus more on the “given” name and consider “road,” “street,” “avenue” and “lane” as synonymous.