Words Of The Street

A toponym is a name of something that denotes a geographical place, usually the place of origin of the thing named. The words spa (a town in Belgium), Watergate (a hotel and office building, site of famous burglary), and rugby (a school in Britain) are toponyms for, respectively, a resort, a political scandal, and a sport.

Among toponyms, a few are street names that have come to be associated with industries and activities located there. Perhaps the most famous is Wall Street, the toponym meaning the US financial markets. The metaphorical use comes from the fact that many of the largest financial institutions have traditionally had their headquarters on that Manhattan Street. The metaphorical usage dates to 1841.

Probably created in emulation of Wall Street, the term Bay Street refers to the Canadian financial markets, after the road in Toronto on which many financial institutions are located. This usage is rather recent, dating only to 1984. On the other side of the continent, Sand Hill Road is emblematic of the venture capital industry that fuels Silicon Valley (another toponym of a sort, but not a street), after the street in Palo Alto where many VC firms reside. The metaphorical use of Sand Hill Road dates to 1988.

Wall Street is not the only New York City street-name toponym. As one can imagine, the most important city in the United States has contributed several others. Sharing the limelight with Wall Street is Broadway, a term for the world of the theater, after the street where many theaters are located. The metaphorical use of Broadway is almost as old as its financial cousin, dating to 1881.

Since 1944, Madison Avenue has served the same function for the American advertising industry. Park Avenue has been a synonym for wealth and high society since 1923. And Tin Pan Alley has referred to the music business since 1903. Unlike the others, Tin Pan Alley is a nickname and not an official name for the street in question, West 18th Street between Broadway and 6th Avenue.

The de facto capital of the US, Washington, DC gives us a couple of street toponyms. The most famous being the Beltway, a reference to the ring road that surrounds the city and standing for the federal government. It is most commonly used in the phrase inside the Beltway (1977) and in the term Beltway bandit (1978), meaning a government contractor.

More recently, Washington has given us K Street, a term referring to political consultants and lobbyists, many of whom have their offices there. The metaphorical use dates to 1984. The most famous incarnation of K Street was in the title of a 2003 HBO series about Washington produced by George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh.

On the other side of the pond, London gives us its share of street name toponyms. Fleet Street is used to refer to the British press, after the numerous newspapers that were once located there. This usage dates to 1882. Even older is Harley Street, since 1830 used to refer to the medical profession, especially the specialists at the top of the profession.

High Street is a term used to refer to retail shops, after the name of the central street in many British towns. The metaphorical use is relatively recent, only from 1959. Its American counterpart, Main Street, has a different metaphorical meaning. Since 1916, it has been used to refer to small town America.

A far cry from Park Avenue, Wall Street, and even Main and High Streets is Skid Row, a synonym for poverty since 1931. Skid Row or Skid Road was a common name in 19th century America for logging roads paved with logs or timber. The claim that the original Skid Row was in Seattle is false—the earliest known use is from the Adirondack region of New York. The metaphorical sense stems from the wild and wooly logging camps found along such roads.

Finally, a synonym for Skid Row is another street, Tobacco Road. This one has a literary origin, it’s from the title of Erskine Caldwell’s 1932 novel and play.

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