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The Street Names of England

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Almost every city, town, and village in England has had at least one local history book written about the stories behind the nearby names of places and streets. Here for the first time is a book covering the street names of the whole country.

Its author, Adrian Room, is a well-known and much-respected etymologist. He has written many other important texts on the subject and edited several more, not least the esteemed Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable and The Penguin Dictionary of British Place Names.

The Street Names of England is not intended to be comprehensive – such a huge project, if it is ever undertaken, will run to very many volumes – but Room does draw examples from across the country. The origins of over 3,500 specific names are explained within its pages.

The book commences with a discussion of the many types of street, and there are far more than you might at first imagine: alley, approach, arcade, avenue, bank, boulevard, brow, buildings, causeway, circus, close, cottages, court, crescent, croft, drive, embankment, esplanade, gardens, gate, grove, hill, lane, lawn, link, mead, mews, mount, parade, passage, pavement, place, promenade, quay, road, row, side, square, street, terrace, vale, view, villas, walk, wall, way, and yard – to quote only the better-known ones!

This is far more than a book of simple lists, though, as we see in Room's discussion of the word mews:

The term is typically used of a short cul-de-sac in a fashionable area of a town or city, originally one lined by houses or apartments that have been converted from former stables. The historic reference is to The Mews, the royal stables at Charing Cross, London, in medieval times. These were so called as they had been built on the site of hawks' mews, a mew being originally a place of confinement for hawks when they were moulting (from Old French mue, from muer, 'to moult').

Following this general introductory discussion are twelve chapters, each focusing on a particular category of street name. Room begins by exploring the names of the Roman roads and ancient trackways that formed the foundations of the current system of roads in England.

In the fascinating section on self-descriptive terms, we begin to get a feel for the huge variety of names of English streets, past and present. Carfax, the central junction in Oxford, comes, we learn, from the French word for crossroads, carrefour. This originated from the Latin word quadrifurcus; literally 'four-forked'. Even more interesting are some of the streets which once had a reputation for prostitution:

The oldest and most explicit of all street names of this type has survived in Grope Lane, Bristol, Grape Lane, York and Grape Passage, Reading (Berkshire). The name is a euphemistic short form of Gropecuntelane, and this (or a form of it) was formerly found in several towns. York's Grape Lane was thus Grapecuntlane in the 14th century, while a hundred years earlier the City of London had its Gropecontelane and Oxford its Gropecuntelane. The 'four-letter word' that lies at the heart of the name is given its earliest citation by the Oxford English Dictionary (which admitted it to its pages only in 1972) from its occurrence in the Oxford street name, which dates from about 1230.

Chapters on field and water names, bridge names, religious names, and names from inns are similarly well-researched and explained with copious illustrative examples. Room amuses the reader with such delights as Shoot Up Hill in London (so called because it 'shoots up' steeply) and the curious Whip-ma Whop-ma Gate in York, which he speculates takes its name from the whipping post and pillory that once stood at the end of the street.

There are also sections covering directional names (roads named for where they lead), occupational names, names from buildings and structures, commemorative names, and names of personal origin.

In chapter 13 we learn about thematic street names: clusters of streets in a particular locality given related titles. Often the inspiration for such themes is trees, plants, birds or a famous family. More original are the streets in Northwood, northwest London, with the common theme of astronomy: Altair Way, Apollo Avenue, Aquarius Way, Aquila Close, Avior Drive, Canopus Way, Capella Road, Orion Way, Pheonix Close, and Vega Cresent. And in Bootle (Merseyside) there's over a dozen streets named after Shakespearean characters.

The book concludes with a short chapter of practical guidance on studying street names. And the series of appendices detailing a frequency study of street names in Greater London and Greater Manchester is well worth investigating. (Room informs us that there is an incredible 380 streets named Church [Road/Street...] in Greater London alone! In second place is Park. These are also the two most popular in Greater Manchester – although reversed in order.)

The volume itself is printed on long-life paper, bound in real cloth, and wrapped in an attractive full-colour dust jacket designed by artist Celia Tyler.

This pioneering work, with its new taxonomy of street names, will prove and invaluable tool for English local historians and students of English history. It is an excellent academic book, and includes a full index and bibliography for researchers. It is nevertheless a wonderfully accessible work, bound to be enjoyed by all with an interest in etymology.

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