Sometimes you don’t notice dialectal terms until you move away from the region. After having lived in Toronto for six years and then having moved on to Texas, I have just noticed the term laneway. In current use it refers to a back alley running behind urban homes and is found chiefly in Ireland, Canada, and Australia.

The redundant term appears to have originated in Ireland, where it is attested to as early as 1858. A reprint of a Dublin newspaper article appears in a Montreal paper in 1873, but the earliest known fully Canadian citation is from 1888. In Irish and early Canadian use, laneway simply denoted a narrow road or street—a lane—but in twentieth-century Canada the term narrowed in meaning to refer to a back alley. From the Toronto Star, 2 November 1923:

Juryman: “Do you know if this is a laneway or a street?” Mr Murphy: “It is a laneway, and has not been opened as a street. Application has been made.”

There are also the terms laneway house or laneway housing, which are chiefly found in Toronto and Vancouver. Laneway houses are smaller homes built on back alleys in an effort to provide more housing and alleviate a shortage of rental units in those cities. The first laneway house was built in 1989, but the term isn’t attested until 1997. From The Globe and Mail (Toronto), 23 August 1997:

BUILDING a house with the front door on the back lane may not be up everyone’s alley. But for those hardy souls who want to build affordable yet unique dwellings in Toronto’s saturated core, a coach house or laneway house may be the only practical option.


Dictionary of Canadianisms on Historical Principles, second edition, October 2016, s. v. laneway, laneway house.

Image: Canadian Broadcasting Company,

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