Heard on the street, and the avenue, too

The Monitor's language columnist considers the lexicon of thoroughfares.

Dear reader, in this column I should like to take you to the streets. I promise that we won't end up in the gutter. We may, however, end up at the curb.

I've been noodling for a while on the subject of synonyms. Writers are always in the market for them, because when they're writing on a given subject, they don't want to keep repeating any one term over and over.

So if they're writing about cattle, for instance, they can avoid having to say "cattle" all the time by tossing in a word like bovine every now and again – not that anyone actually in the cattle industry ever uses that word.

H.W. Fowler, the early 20th-century language authority, had a term for the extreme form of this search for synonyms. He called it "elegant variation," and it wasn't meant as a compliment. And sometimes synonyms are not quite as interchangeable as we might wish.

Woe betide the cub reporter at a New England daily, for instance, who fails to grasp the difference between a town and a city, for instance. To connoisseurs of local governance, it's on par with the difference between a republic and a constitutional monarchy.

With all this in mind, I began to wonder the other day about distinctions between street and road and all the other variations on that theme of public passageways. Street and road do indeed represent the two main types – street the more urban, and friendlier to pedestrians, while road is more rural, and more, well, vehicular. And although many people use the terms interchangeably, there is a distinction. As Wikipedia puts it: "A road's main function is transportation, while streets facilitate public interaction." Or as another Web scribe has put it, with a little more punch: "Roads connect cities, towns, and states. Streets connect people."

Then there's avenue, which sounds a bit more residential but is often used in a local naming convention to signal a different direction from streets, e.g. in New York's Borough of Manhattan, where streets run east-west and avenues north-south.

One interesting idea I've just stumbled upon online: Have you ever realized that with a two-part name you typically stress the "avenue," or "road" or "drive" or whatever – but if it's "street" you stress the proper name – e.g., it's Boylston Street but Massachusetts Avenue. (But it's Fifth Avenue, invariably, in New York. Go figure, as they say.)

While living in Germany I learned the useful distinction, concisely expressed, between Fahrstrassen ("drivable" streets) and Gehstrassen (accessible only on foot). Once upon a time, as part of a campaign to collect used clothing for the less fortunate, the German Red Cross delivered to the lobby of my apartment building, right on the edge of Bonn's old-city pedestrian zone, a roll of plastic bags imprinted with the Red Cross logo.

The idea was that we would purge our closets and fill the bags and leave them at the curb for Red Cross pickup on a given date. The elaborate directions (full of exclamation points!) reminded us to be sure to leave the bags along a Fahrstrasse, for truck access. But they also reminded us to keep watch (Aufsicht) over the bags, something possible only on the Gehstrasse side of the building. Figuring that the need for access trumped the need for supervision, I opted for the Fahrstrasse side and dropped my bag on the curb.

I never saw it again. I trust that was a good sign.

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