Sign up to the Blog


Place Names - Why is a street called street?...and others.

In my latest blog series I'm looking at history of the familiar, beginning with place names. The first blog [catch up with it here] took a variety of places names and looked briefly at their provenance to demonstrate the breadth of origins. I also made the point that English place names have travelled the world with settlers and so in these instances the place name has an origin and a follow-on history linked to how and why it was chosen.

That blog peaked readers interest and so I'm following up this week specifically with the names given to the thoroughfares where we live and travel through each and every day. I am relying heavily on the fantastic book by Charles Whynne-Hammond, 'Tracing the History of Place Names'.

There are two main ways that thoroughfares received their names;

  • a description of its use, size, or structure, or
  • a name is assigned. This became a common way of assigning names post industrial revolution.

Let's begin with the most common, road, street, lane and way which all originate in the Saxon language. 'Road' comes from the word 'rad' which refers to horse riding. It appeared relatively recently, in the 15th and 16th centuries probably referring to them being used by horse traffic, riders and stage coaches. 'Street' comes from the word for paved road, 'straet' and was used widely for trader routes, main routes across the country, for instance the Roman roads Watling Street, Akeman Street and Ermine Street. 'Lane' was used for less important trackways and comes from the word 'lanu'. 'Way' originates in the word 'weg'.

We can see the influence of other languages, an indication of the many invasions onto English soil over our history, in other familiar thoroughfare names; 'Gate' meaning a thoroughfare as opposed to a literal gate is from the Danish 'gata' meaning street. 'Alley' comes from the old French 'alee' which comes from the French verb 'to go'. 'Close' is from the old french 'clos' referring to a closed off area or enclosure. Also, 'Mews', now used more frequently in the naming of residential roads, is used to refer to the conversion of a building from stables to residences.

A fashion for street names developed in the post-war period and we see the use of nouns such as 'Avenue', 'Cresent', 'Orchard', 'Court' and such like. As more houses, housing estates and streets were built and house ownership soared, names became an important marketing tool in invoking ideas of what it will be like to live on 'Apple Orchard', 'Cedar Close' or 'Hill View'.

In the next blog I will explore how out thoroughfares got the beginnings of their names.

Until next time!

 Philippa Brewell

History Writer and History Tour Creator


Tracing the History of Place Names. Charles Whynne-Hammond. 1992. Countryside Books

​See what British History Tours is up to on Facebook.

The bitter aftertaste of Slavery
Place Names - The meaning of familiar place names

Related Posts