Main Street / High Street / highway

The use of Main Street and High Street is an example of the divergence of North American and British English. While both terms can be found on either side of the Atlantic, the former is more common in North America and latter in the UK. Both are terms for the principal road in a town, and both have become metonyms for aspects of urban life. In this case, the divergence appears to be the result of a Darwinian selection process—the need for new street names in North America opened up a lexical niche that coincided with a shift in the meaning of the adjectives main and high, which favored main as the choice for the new roads.

Both main and high trace back to Old English, but their relevant adjectival uses are somewhat more recent. Main comes from the Old English noun mægn, meaning “physical strength, power,” and it has been used adjectivally to mean “principal, chief” since c. 1400. The Old English adjective heah, “tall, lofty, exalted,” could only signify “principal” when used in compounds; heahburh, for example, means “principal or capital city.” According to the Oxford English Dictionary, as a standalone adjective, high developed a sense of “principal” in Middle English, but this sense faded out and ceased to be productive in the seventeenth century, just as streets in the New World were beginning to be named.

As street names, High Street is the older, dating to the Old English heahstræte, which appears in land charters from c. 1000. In Old English usage, the word was usually applied to Roman roads, roughly corresponding to the modern use of highway, which also dates to Old English, heiweg. The earliest use of Main Street cited in the OED is in John Florio’s 1598 Italian-English dictionary Worlde of Wordes, where “a maine street” glosses rióne. The next appearance in the OED is from the diary of Massachusetts jurist Samuel Sewall in 1687, where he reports “a great Uproar and Lewd rout in the Main Street.” Other than Florio’s gloss, the early citations are all North American, with the next British citation in the dictionary from the 1741–43 diary of clergyman John Wesley. While relying on OED citations as evidence of geographic distribution is often problematic (Sheidlower), in this case it is clear that from early on Main Street has been predominantly a North American term. The earliest citation in the OED where Main Street is unambiguously the name of a road, as opposed to a descriptor, is from 1810.

While the transatlantic split in use of the two terms is clear from a superficial look, actual data on their frequency is difficult to find. Neither the US Geological Survey nor the Census Bureau regularly publishes data on US street names. However, a 1993 Census Bureau publication states that there are 7,644 Main Streets in the US, making Main the seventh most popular street name; First through Fifth and Park are more common. High does not appear in the list of the top twenty US street names (Most Common). For British usage, Wikipedia refers, without citation, to a survey conducted by the Halifax bank that states there are 5,410 High Streets in the UK, compared to 3,811 Station Roads and 2,702 Main Streets.

Both terms have spawned metonymic uses, indicating that they have become ingrained in their respective national psyches. Main Street has been a metonym for small-town America since at least 1916, a use popularized by Sinclair Lewis’s 1920 novel of that name. The metonym originally had a pejorative cast, representing provincial and unenlightened opinion, but seems to have meliorated in recent years and now represents common-sense, middle-class values and is often used in opposition to the business interests of Wall Street. In Canada, the name has also generated mainstreeting and to mainstreet, terms for retail political campaigning, perhaps coined and certainly popularized by Prime Minister John Diefenbaker in the late 1950s. Across the Atlantic, by 1959, High Street had acquired an adjectival use as a reference to a town’s shopping district and more generally to things popular with the general public, but unlike the American metonymic use of Main Street, this British use of High Street focuses on retail commerce, rather than political and moral values and opinion (Hargraves 69–70).

John Krumpelmann suggests that the predominance of Main Street in North America may be due to German immigration in that the term is a calque for the German hauptstrasse (Krumpelmann 300). Similarly, H. L. Mencken’s claim that Main Street is more common in Scotland than in England might indicate that Scottish emigration to North America may have played a role in the split (547). But the evidence indicates that Main Street was in North American use from the seventeenth century, before large-scale German or Scottish immigration.

More likely the divergence between the British High Street and the North American Main Street is simply due to the opening of a lexical niche with the creation of cities and streets in the New World and the decline in the use of high to mean “principal.” The streets on the new continent had to be named something, and Main just happened to gain a beachhead, perhaps because at the time the meaning of high was being narrowed, and its use as a descriptor seemed more enigmatic. Once established in Boston and a few other cities on the eastern seaboard, Main Street was then carried westward to new towns. If the Wikipedia data is to be believed, Main Street is the third most popular street name in the UK, but in the old country without the opening of the niche by new construction, this popularity simply did not have the ability to overcome the 500-year head start of the already established High Street.

Works Cited

Bosworth, Joseph; T. Northcote Toller. “Heah.” An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1898. Print.

Hargraves, Orin. Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions: Making Sense of Transatlantic English. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003. Print.

“high street, n.” Oxford English Dictionary Online. 2nd ed. 1989. Web. 25 Jan. 2011.

“High Street.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 5 Jan. 2011. Web. 29 Jan. 2011.

“high, adj. and n.2.” Oxford English Dictionary Online. 2nd ed. 1989. Web. 25 Jan. 2011.

“highway, n.” Oxford English Dictionary Online. 2nd ed. 1989. Web. 25 Jan. 2011.

Krumpelmann, John T. “Sealsfield Redivivus.” American Speech 43.4 (Dec. 1968): 297–301. JSTOR. Web. 25 Jan. 2011.

“main street, n.” Oxford English Dictionary Online. 3rd ed. July 2010. Web. 25 Jan. 2011.

“main, adj.2.” Oxford English Dictionary Online. 3rd ed. Aug. 2010. Web. 29 Jan. 2011.

“main, n.1.” Oxford English Dictionary Online. 3rd ed., Aug. 2010. Web. 29 Jan. 2011.

“mainstreet, v.” Oxford English Dictionary Online. 3rd ed. July 2010. Web. 25 Jan. 2011.

“mainstreeting, n.” Oxford English Dictionary Online. 3rd ed. July 2010. Web. 25 Jan. 2011.

Mencken, H. L. The American Language. 4th ed. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1936. Print.

“Most Common Street Names.” N.d. National League of Cities. Web. 29 Jan. 2011.

Sheidlower, Jesse. “Re: ‘the Apocryphal HDAS III’.” ADS-L Email Discussion List. American Dialect Society, 3 Aug. 2010. Web. 29 Jan. 2011.

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