Word of the Week
I love English — as you’ve probably noticed! One of its odder features is its three-fold or four-fold engagement with Latin. You see, the Romans had annexed the south of Great Britain, up to Hadrian’s Wall, and so for three centuries you had people in England mixing it up with those oddballs who liked hot springs (at Bath), who set up walled camps and towns everywhere (at Lan-caster, Man-chester, Ro-chester, Wor-cester, and all those other places that had Latin castra, camp, in their names), who used coins (Latin moneta, which eventually became Old English mynt, the ancestor of English mint), and who strewed layers of gravel and stone to make roads, some of which are still in use, more than two thousand years later. The Latin word for spreading things out or strewing them broadside, or flattening somebody with a good left cross, was sternere, with its past participle stratus. So Latin via strata meant a paved way — and then it was just strata, for short.
“Then did the English speakers in England refer to the road as a strata?” Not yet, dear reader! For there were no English speakers in England then. The natives spoke British languages, the ancestors of Gaelic and Welsh. But they did adopt the word, along with those place-names, and a nice little set of other Roman terms too, so that when the Angles and the Saxons finally did invade, in the middle 400’s, driving the natives into the far north and west, they inherited the words, and Latin strata became Anglo-Saxon straet, pronounced straat, with a drawn-out a-sound as in Sam. And that, after English vowels did a round-robin in the 1400’s, has come down to us in modern English as street, our Word of the Week.
To this day, I think, we wouldn’t call an unpaved road a “street,” though we’d be hard put to say exactly why not. “It’s a road,” we might say, or a trail, a lane, a path, but not a street. And we also assume that a street has to have people living there, or at least working there: right now, it appears, there are long stretches of streets in New York City where nobody lives anymore, because big corporate headquarters have taken them over. Anyway, when I say that when I was a little boy I lived on Spring Street, you might see in your mind’s eye something rather like the reality. It was a dead-end street, the best for children, because we could play on it all the time without any risk. The houses all faced the street, with big wide front porches, where the old ladies and the young housewives would sit when they had some time to relax, and carry on conversations from porch to porch across and down the street. We kids would be playing ball or hide-and-seek or kick-the-can, or the girls would skip rope while the boys were playing “hit the bat,” and all was well.
In American cities, a long time ago, street life simply was city life: Willie Mays playing stickball with the kids in New York, newsstands, shoeshine boys, guys selling hot dogs or potato knishes from their carts. Some of that still survives here and there, I guess. You can see its real fullness in the famous painting by Norman Rockwell, of the boy coming home from the war, and everybody in the apartments left and right is a part of the surprise and the celebration — including a shy and pretty girl watching him from behind the corner of the building where he lives. Nothing has replaced it. Nothing can.
Word & Song by Anthony Esolen is an online magazine devoted to reclaiming the good, the beautiful, and the true. We publish six essays each week, on words, classic hymn, poems, films, and popular songs, as well a weekly podcast, alternately Poetry Aloud or Anthony Esolen Speaks. To support this project, please join us as a free or paid subscriber. Learn more about our subscription tiers by clicking the button below.
I enjoy writing fantasy in my spare time (you know this, Dr. E, though other commenters here do not): maybe someday I might make a name for myself at it. The genre has always been a bit looked down upon--even Tolkien and Lewis, bless them, couldn't do much to change that--but more and more, as I read them and try to emulate them, I find the term "fantasy" less applicable. After all, what "fantasy" do we find in stories like Narnia, or in The Lord of the Rings? We find amazing adventures, yes, but also reality. The streets and roads of the Shire are more like how things once were in our world than the world of today is like the supposedly idyllic, sci-fi future imagined in, say, Star Trek. Fantasy always builds off of reality, but the "reality" we have today is less like a fantasy and more like a nightmare. Luckily, I have a lot of great influences to build upon in my own works, however incomplete they are thus far. Memories like this, about something as simple as how streets used to be, give my own imaginings more life. It's good to have something to escape to, to know that I can create in my head something like the world society did away with before I was born. I'm fortunate enough to be able to imagine it, even if I can't experience it.
Tony, you described the streets of New York perfectly! On 113th street in Ozone Park we also had vendors that went door to door carrying suitcases with everything you needed. A grinder would travel the street with his machine selling his sharpening skills. Everyone had knives and scissors! Periodically there were decorated carts pulled by ponies for kids to ride in. Milk was delivered in bottles from a horse pulled wagon. Cars were rarely on the road making it a playground for ring'o levio, hide and seek, potsie, simon says , stick ball, etc. Each house had a stoop where you could sit until supper time and listen to radio serial brodcasts which activated your imagination. Salesmen arrived often. I remember that my father bought a vacuum cleaner which lasted forever, and a Douey Rheims Bible with illustrations that is now only found in antiquarian book stores
" Street " is alive with meaning.