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H.L. Mencken (1880–1956). The American Language. 1921.

X. Proper Names in America

4. Street Names

“SUCH a locality as ‘the corner of Avenue H and Twenty-third street,’ ” says W. W. Crane, “is about as distinctly American as Algonquin and Iroquois names like Mississippi and Saratoga.” Kipling, in his “American Notes,” gives testimony to the strangeness with which the number-names, the phrase “the corner of,” and the custom of omitting street fall upon the ear of a Britisher. He quotes with amazement certain directions given to him on his arrival in San Francisco from India: “Go six blocks north to [the] corner of Geary and Markey [Market?]; then walk around till you strike [the] corner of Sutter and Sixteenth.” The English always add the word street (or road or place or avenue) when speaking of a thoroughfare; such a phrase as “Oxford and New Bond” would strike them as incongruous. The American custom of numbering and lettering streets is almost always ascribed by English writers who discuss it, not to a desire to make finding them easy, but to sheer poverty of invention. The English apparently have an inexhaustible fund of names for streets; they often give one street more than one name. Thus, Oxford street, London, becomes the Bayswater road, High street, Holland Park avenue, Goldhawke road and finally the Oxford road to the westward, and High Holborn, Holborn viaduct, Newgate street, Cheapside, the Poultry, Cornhill and Leadenhall street to the eastward. The Strand, in the same way, becomes Fleet street, Ludgate hill and Cannon street. Nevertheless, there is a First avenue in Queen’s Park, London, and parallel to it are Second, Third, Fourth, Fifth and Sixth avenues—all small streets leading northward from the Harrow road, just east of Kensal Green cemetery. I have observed that few Londoners have ever heard of them. There is also a First street in Chelsea—a very modest thoroughfare near Lennox Gardens and not far from the Brompton Oratory.

Next to the numbering and lettering of streets, a fashion apparently set up by Major Pierre-Charles L’Enfant’s plans for Washington, the most noticeable feature of American street nomenclature, as opposed to that of England, is the extensive use of such designations as avenue, boulevard, drive and speedway. Avenue is used in England, but only rather sparingly; it is seldom applied to a mean street, or to one in a warehouse district. In America the word is scarcely distinguished in meaning from street. Boulevard, drive and speed-way are almost unknown to the English, but they use road for urban thoroughfares, which is very seldom done in America, and they also make free use of place, walk, passage, lane and circus, all of which are obsolescent on this side of the ocean. Some of the older American cities, such as Boston and Baltimore, have surviving certain ancient English designations of streets, e. g., Cheapside and Cornhill; these are unknown in the newer American towns. Broadway, which is also English, is more common. Many American towns now have plazas, which are unknown in England. Nearly all have City Hall parks, squares or places; City Hall is also unknown over there. The principal street of a small town, in America, is almost always Main street; in England it is as invariably High street, usually with the definite article before High.

I have mentioned the corruption of old Dutch street and neighbor-hood names in New York. Spanish names are corrupted in the same way in the Southwest and French names in the Great Lakes region and in Louisiana. In New Orleans the street names, many of them strikingly beautiful, are pronounced so barbarously by the people that a Frenchman would have difficulty recognizing them. Thus, Bourbon has become Bur-bun, Dauphine is Daw-fin, Foucher is Foosh’r, Enghien is En-gine, and Felicity (originally F licité) is Fill-a-city. The French, in their day, bestowed the names of the Muses upon certain of the city streets. They are now pronounced Cal-y-ope, Terp-si-chore, Mel-po-mean, You-terp, and so on. Bons Enfants, apparently too difficult for the native, has been translated into Good Children. Only Esplanade and Bagatelle, among the French street names of the city, seem to be commonly pronounced with any approach to correctness. Worse, there is a growing tendency to translate the old names. Thus, the rue Royale is now usually called Royal street.

The use of at in the phrase, “Fifth avenue at 48th street,” seems to be an Americanism. It indicates that the house designated is near the corner, but not actually at it. I have observed this use of at in England.