The etymology of a street name is sometimes very obvious, but at other times it might be obscure or even forgotten.
In the United States, most streets are named after numbers, landscapes, trees (a combination of trees and landscapes such as "Oakhill" is used often in residential areas), or the surname of an important individual (in some instances, it is just a commonly held surname such as Smith).
Some streets, such as Elm Street in East Machias, Maine, have been renamed due to features changing. Elm Street's new name, Jacksonville Road, was chosen because it leads to the village of Jacksonville. Its former name was chosen because of elm trees; it was renamed when all of the trees along the street succumbed to Dutch elm disease.
The Shambles, derived from the Anglo-Saxon term fleshammels ("meat shelves" in butchers' stalls), is a historical street name which still exists in various cities and towns around England. The best-known example is in York.
The unusual etymologies of quite a few street names in the United Kingdom are documented in Rude Britain, complete with photographs of local signage.
Type of commerce or industry
Smith Street/La Rue des Forges
refers to the blacksmiths' forges that were formerly situated in this street in Guernsey
In the past, many streets were named for the type of commerce or industry found there. This rarely happens in modern times, but many such older names are still common. Examples are London's Haymarket; Barcelona's Carrer de Moles (Millstone Street), where the stonecutters used to have their shops; and Cannery Row in Monterey, California.
Some streets are named for landmarks that were in the street, or nearby, when it was built. Such names are often retained after the landmark disappears.
Barcelona's La Rambla is officially a series of streets. The Rambla de Canaletes is named after a fountain that still stands, but the Rambla dels Estudis is named after the Estudis Generals, a university building demolished in 1843, and the Rambla de Sant Josep, the Rambla dels Caputxins, and the Rambla de Santa Monica are each named after former convents. Only the convent of Santa Monica survives as a building, and it has been converted to a museum.
Sometimes a street is named after a landmark that was destroyed to build that very street. For example, New York's Canal Street takes its name from a canal that was filled in to build it. New Orleans' Canal Street was named for the canal that was to be built in its right-of-way.
While names such as Long Road or Nine Mile Ride have an obvious meaning, some road names' etymologies are less clear. The various Stone Streets, for example, were named at a time when the art of building paved (stone) Roman roads had been lost. The main road through Old Windsor, UK, is called "Straight Road", and it is straight where it carries that name. Many streets with regular nouns rather than proper nouns, are somehow related to that noun. For example, Station Street or Station Road, do connect to a railway station, and many "Railway Streets" or similar do end at, cross or parallel a railway. Sometimes the ordinary-sounding name is actually a proper noun. Many roads are named after a Mr Hill or Mrs King and similar.
Many roads (particularly in the UK, Australia, the northeastern US, and southern Ontario, Canada) are given the name of the place to which they lead. However, there are also many examples of streets named after a city that is many miles away and has no obvious link to the street.
When the roads do still make it to their stated destination, the names are often changed when they get closer to the destination. Hartford Avenue in Wethersfield, Connecticut, becomes Wethersfield Avenue in Hartford, Connecticut, for example. A road can switch names multiple times as local opinion changes regarding its destination: for example, the road between Oxford and Banbury changes name five times from the Banbury Road to the Oxford Road and back again as it passes through villages.
Some streets are named after the areas that the street connects. For example, Clarcona Ocoee Road links the communities of Clarcona and Ocoee in Orlando, Florida, and Jindivick–Neerim South Road links the towns of Jindivick and Neerim South in Victoria, Australia.
Some roads are named after their general direction, such as "Great North Road".
Bypasses are often named after the town they route traffic around, for example the Newbury bypass.
Distinguished or famous individuals
Some streets are named after famous or distinguished individuals, sometimes people directly associated with the street, usually after their deaths. Bucharest's Şoseaua Kiseleff was named after the Russian reformer Pavel Kiselyov who had the road built while Russian troops were occupying the city in the 1830s; its Strada Dr. Iuliu Barasch is named after a locally famous physician whose clinic was located there.
Naming a street after oneself as a bid for immortality has a long pedigree: Jermyn Street in London was named by Henry Jermyn, 1st Earl of St Albans, who developed the St. James's area for Charles II of England. Perhaps to dissuade such posterity-seeking, many jurisdictions only allow naming for persons after their death, occasionally with a waiting period of ten years or more. A dozen streets in San Francisco, California's North Beach neighborhood were renamed in 1988 after local writers; in 1994, the city broke with tradition, honoring Lawrence Ferlinghetti by renaming an alley after the poet within his own lifetime.
Naming a street for a person is very common in many countries, often in the honorand's birthplace. However, it is also the most controversial type of naming, especially in cases of renaming. Two main reasons streets are renamed are: (1) to commemorate a person who lived or worked in that area (for example, Avenue Victor Hugo in Paris, where he resided); or (2) to associate a prominent street in a city after an admired major historical figure even with no specific connection to the locale (for example, René Lévesque Boulevard in Montreal, formerly Dorchester Boulevard). Similarly, hundreds of roads in the United States have been named MLK in tribute to the assassinated civil rights leader, Martin Luther King Jr.
Conversely, renaming can be a way to eliminate a name that proves too controversial. For example, Hamburg Avenue in Brooklyn, New York became Wilson Avenue after the United States entered World War I against Germany (see below). In Riverside, California, a short, one-way street named Wong Way was renamed to a more respectful Wong Street, as well as spelled out in Chinese characters to honor the historical Chinatown that once occupied the area.
In a case of a street named after a living person becoming controversial, Lech Walesa Street in San Francisco was renamed to Dr. Tom Waddell Place in 2014 after Walesa made a public remark against gay people holding major public office.
Groups of streets in one area are sometimes named using a particular theme. One example is Philadelphia, where the major east-west streets in William Penn's original plan for the city carry the names of trees: from north to south, these were Vine, Sassafras, Mulberry, High (not a tree), Chestnut, Walnut, Locust, Spruce, Pine, Lombard and Cedar. (Sassafras, Mulberry, High and Cedar have since been renamed to Race, Arch, Market [the main east-west street downtown] and South.)
Other examples of themed streets:
- In Washington, D.C., each of the 50 U.S. states has a street named after it (such as Pennsylvania Avenue, which runs from the Capitol to the White House). Most of the "state avenues" cross diagonally through the alphabetic and numbered streets in Washington's grid (see grid systems below).
- In an area of northwest Portland, Oregon, streets are in alphabetical order and are named after important local businessmen and pioneers. The names date back to 1892 when they replaced an alphabetical lettering system. A portion of the area, known as the Alphabet Historic District, is zoned for historic preservation and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2000.
- In the area of Puerto Madero, Buenos Aires, Argentina, streets are named after important women.
- Themed street names are very common in Guadalajara, Mexico with names including:
- Constellations and astronomers in La Calma and Arboledas.
- Rivers and mountain ranges in Las Águilas (Sierra de Pihuamo, Río Verde...)
- Aztec places, people and gods in Ciudad del Sol (Axayácatl, Cuauhtémoc, Popocatépetl, Anáhuac...)
- World cities in Providencia.
- Hispanic writers and intellectuals in Ladrón de Guevara and nearby areas.
- Flowers in downhill Bugambilias, animals uphill.
- Classical artists in La Estancia (Hector Berlioz, Rafael Sanzio, Johann Sebastian Bach...)
- International writers in Jardines Vallarta.
- Mexican isles near El Sauz.
- Countries in Colonia Moderna (Francia, España, Alemania...)
- Tucson, Arizona has streets and avenues, but roads that run diagonally are called "Stravenues".
- Denver, Colorado's north-south streets alternate names in alphabetical order throughout the entire city; for example Albion-Ash-Bellaire-Birch-Clermont-Cherry-Dexter-Dahlia going west-east on the city's east side. (In this double alphabet grouping, the first alphabet is Scottish-themed and the second alphabet is botanically-themed.) Alternately, going east-west has the same effect; for example Acoma-Bannock-Cherokee-Delaware-Elati-Fox etc. (Exceptions do exist.) Other themes exist in the city, such as university names (Yale and Dartmouth Avenues) and presidential names (Garfield and Washington Streets). These two common themes are found in many other cities as well, such as Hemet, California, and Torrance, California, respectively.
- Redondo Beach, California, has a series of approximately alphabetical gemstone names (Beryl, Carnelian, Diamond, etc.) for streets crossing Pacific Coast Highway.
- Two Florida cities have streets named after American presidents: Hollywood, and Cape Canaveral.
- In New Orleans, Louisiana, some streets of the historic French Quarter are named for royal houses of France. Many who visit this neighborhood mistake Bourbon Street to be named after the beverage that many of the street's famous revelers are drinking, while it is actually named after the House of Bourbon, the ruling dynasty of France when the city was built. Similarly, Burgundy Street was named for the House of Burgundy and not the wine. Other streets named for royalties include Dumaine, Toulouse, Conti, Dauphine and Chartres.
- The Toxteth area of Liverpool has 'Welsh Streets', a series of streets named after Welsh places, including Rhiwlas St, Gwydir St, Powis St and Madryn Street, where Beatles drummer Ringo Starr grew up. These streets were refurbished during 2017.
- Worcester has a Canadian themed area with streets named after large cities, provinces, and other locations. Leicester has one area named after nuts; Filbert Street was the home of Leicester City F.C. between 1891 and 2002.
- Leicester also has a series of terraced streets with the names Hawthorne, Alma, Rowan, Ruby, Ivanhoe, Sylvan, Oban, and Newport - the first letter making the name "Harrison" - after the builder. The streets all run into Beatrice Road - named for the builder's wife.
- In Brossard, Quebec, Red Deer, Alberta and Brampton, Ontario, different sections of the town all have streets starting with the same letter; in Brampton, the alphabetical order reflects chronology. Laval, Quebec has an area named for birds; Kirkland, Quebec has an area named after wines. Mississauga, Ontario, Markham, Ontario, and Winston-Salem, North Carolina all have areas named for the characters in Robin Hood.
- Themed names are popular in suburban subdivisions. The subdivision or suburban town may itself give the name of the theme, such as Anjou, Quebec (ex: main street named for René of Anjou, king of Naples) and Lorraine, Quebec (streets all named for towns in eastern France, main street named for Charles de Gaulle, who resided in that part of France).
- In the Philippines, streets in the South Triangle district of Quezon City were named to commemorate the Boy Scouts that were among the casualties on United Arab Airlines Flight 869 (1963) on their way to the 11th World Scout Jamboree. Streets in Sampaloc, Manila are named after the various books and characters in the works of Jose Rizal.
- Street names in Canberra typically follow a particular theme: the streets of Duffy are named after Australian dams and weirs, the streets of Page are named after biologists and naturalists, and the streets of Gowrie are named after Australian recipients of the Victoria Cross. Latham, named for John Greig Latham, a High Court Justice, has streets named for prominent Australian high court judges. Florey, named for Howard Florey who refined the use of penicillin, has streets named for scientists and physicians.
- Almere in the Netherlands, a planned city founded in 1976, is separated into themed sections. Streets in the city's business district are named for occupations (merchant, poet, real estate agent). Streets in other neighborhoods are named for musical instruments, actors, film directors, islands, months of the year, days of the week, rock stars (Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix), fruits, electronics (transistor, microphone, television), and even Dutch comic-book characters. Themed street names are also very common in all other Dutch towns and cities. It is rare to find non-themed neighborhoods built after 1900 in the Netherlands.
- Nearly all of the streets in Leeton, Australia, were named after plants.
- The neighborhood of Cerak Vinogradi in Belgrade, Serbia, has streets named exclusively by the tree species that lines the street: Ash, Linden, Cedar, etc. The only non-tree place name is that of the central green space, "Trg (Square of) S.C. Babovic", though it lacks any signs with the name.
- Street names in Iceland usually have a second element in common throughout a neighborhood. Examples include neighborhoods where the themes are the names of early settlers, ending with –gata (street); and then more nature-oriented ones where the second part is –smári (clover) or –gerði (hedge) with the first part being chosen for alphabetic order.
- San Francisco has five partial alphabets of parallel streets. Three of these series form the grid in the Bayview district (the series Griffith ... Upton crosses the double series Arthur ... Yosemite, Armstrong ... Meade). Another (Anza ... Yorba) crosses the numbered Avenues in the Richmond and Sunset districts, which together are sometimes called "The Avenues". The fourth is the north-south streets of the Sunnyside district (Acadia ... Genesee). San Francisco also has a series of numbered Streets in the Mission and South-of-Market districts.
- Grantham, England: one estate in the northeast of the town has most of its streets named after famous golf courses of the British Isles. The estate itself is named after the middle section of a golf hole.
- The west side of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, has avenues that go from A to Z, although the majority of Avenue A was renamed to Idylwyld Drive. Although it was not officially named, Witney Avenue in the Meadowgreen and Mount Royal neighborhoods has been unofficially dubbed Avenue Z since it is the last street which runs parallel to Avenue Y.
- In Gander, Newfoundland, every street is named after a pilot, honoring the town's aviation history.
- Downtown Memphis, Tennessee, has five main avenues named after the first five presidents: Washington (northernmost), Adams, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe (southernmost). These streets were laid out in the original plan of Memphis in the early 1820s, shortly after the election of the sixth president John Quincy Adams. (The series was not continued with a second Adams Avenue.)
- Downtown of Ljubljana, Slovenia, has a grid system of roads and Ljubljanica river banks named after famous Slovenian writers, poems or artists, such as France Prešeren and Ivan Cankar. A neighbourhood named Murgle (in Southern Vič district) contains a street naming system based on names of trees planted on sides of the streets, e.g. Under Maples, Under Oaks and Under Willows.
- In Palo Alto, California, streets in the College Terrace neighborhood (which borders the Stanford University campus) are named after distinguished colleges and universities. The streets running north-south start at the westernmost end of the neighborhood alphabetically: Amherst, Bowdoin, Columbia, and Dartmouth. After Dartmouth, the streets do not follow the alphabet (except for the last streets, Wellesley, Williams, and Yale): Hanover, Harvard, Oberlin, Princeton, and Cornell. The backbone of the neighborhood running west-east is College Avenue, and the northernmost street, Stanford Avenue also runs west-east.
- In Garfield Heights, Ohio, there is a tree theme with streets named Oak Park Drive, Shady Oak Blvd, Woodward Blvd, Eastwood Blvd, Oakview Blvd, and Maple Leaf Drive.
- Streets in the suburb of Chapelford in Warrington, England take their names from US place names, centering on Boston Boulevard and including Michigan Place, Orlando Drive and Portland Road. This theme was chosen as this suburb has been built over most of the former RAF Burtonwood site and the surrounding area. This airbase was used extensively by the USAAF during the Second World War and was once the largest airfield in Europe.
- In Palm Coast, Florida, nearly the entire city is divided into "alphabet letter" neighborhoods. The northernmost neighborhood has all "L" street names, whether the street runs north-south or east-west (Ex. Lakeview Blvd, Lancelot Drive, Lancaster Lane, Linnet Way). Other neighborhoods consist of only "B" (Bird of Paradise Dr, Belle Terre Pkwy, Bickwick Ln), "F" (Fellowship Dr, Forest Grove Dr, Fircrest Ln), "C" (Curry Ct, Colorado Dr, Colechester Ln), "P" (Parkview Dr, Prairie Ln, Pacific Dr), "W" (Wellington Dr, Williams Dr, Waters Ct), and "R" (Rymfire Dr, Ravenwood Dr, Royal Tern Ln) street names.
- In Warley, Brentwood, Essex, a fairly recent development has street names themed around English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams; the main road running through the development aptly named "Vaughan Williams Way", with examples of smaller roads on the estate named "Lark Close" and "Tallis Way" after the composer's works "The Lark Ascending" and "Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis", respectively.
Grid-based naming systems
Fifth Avenue and E 57th Street in New York
In many cities laid out on a grid plan, the streets are named to indicate their location on a Cartesian coordinate plane. For example, the Commissioners' Plan of 1811 for Manhattan provided for numbered streets running parallel to the minor axis of the island and numbered and lettered avenues running parallel to the long axis of the island, although many of the avenues have since been assigned names for at least part of their courses. In the city plan for Washington, D.C., north-south streets were numbered away from the United States Capitol in both directions, while east-west streets were lettered away from the Capitol in both directions and diagonal streets were named after various States of the Union. As the city grew, east-west streets past W Street were given two-syllable names in alphabetical order, then three-syllable names in alphabetical order, and finally names relating to flowers and shrubs in alphabetical order. Even in communities not laid out on a grid, such as Arlington County, Virginia, a grid-based naming system is still sometimes used to give a semblance of order.
Often, the numbered streets run east-west and the numbered avenues north-south, following the style adopted in Manhattan, although this is not always observed. In some cases, streets in "half-blocks" in between two consecutive numbered streets have a different designator, such as Court or Terrace, often in an organized system where courts are always between streets and terraces between avenues. Sometimes yet another designator (such as "Way", "Place", or "Circle") is used for streets which go at a diagonal or curve around, and hence do not fit easily in the grid.
In many cases, the block numbers correspond to the numbered cross streets; for instance, an address of 1600 may be near 16th Street or 16th Avenue. In a city with both lettered and numbered streets, such as Washington, D.C., the 400 block may be between 4th and 5th streets or between D and E streets, depending on the direction in which the street in question runs. However, addresses in Manhattan have no obvious relationship to cross streets or avenues, although various tables and formulas are often found on maps and travel guides to assist in finding addresses.
Examples of grid systems:
- In Denver, Colorado, all roads running east/west are given "Avenue" designations, while those running north/south are given "Street" designations. Sometimes, additional designations are given based on physical characteristics of the road (for example, 6th Avenue Parkway and Monaco Street Parkway both contain large medians consisting of trees and walkways). Denver carries numbered Avenues north of Ellsworth, the center of the address system in Denver. Broadway carries alphabetical streets east and west. For example, 100 North Broadway is at First Avenue and Broadway. Alternately, 100 West Ellsworth is at Ellsworth and Acoma Street.
- In Salt Lake City, Utah, the road system is generally based on the headquarters of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Salt Lake City is also known to have a number-based naming system. For example, one may find the address of a local store at 4570 South 4000 West, where 4000 West (or 40th West) is the name of the street and 4570 is the number on the building. This means the store is approximately 45 blocks south of the LDS temple, and 40 blocks west of the LDS temple. Similar cartesian coordinate systems are used in other Utah cities and towns. Some towns in Indiana follow the same practice, as do many cities and towns in eastern Idaho.
- The Chicago, Illinois, grid system extends throughout the entire city and into some of its suburbs. It divides the city into four quadrants, with the zero point being the intersection of State Street(0 E/W) and Madison Street(0 N/S) in the "Loop". All streets bear a directional prefix indicating their position relative to State and Madison, which is never omitted when writing an address (and rarely in speech). "Blocks", which have a range of 100 numbers, are approximately 1/8 mile long (except between Madison and 31st Streets, where blocks are slightly shorter, given a three-mile distance between the streets). Many neighborhoods have intermediate blocks at 1/16 mile intervals as well. The most important streets occur every mile (i.e. every 800 numbers), with secondary streets at half-mile intervals. North-south streets are always named, while east-west streets are named on the North Side and numbered on the South Side. Most City of Chicago residents know at least a few of the major streets and their grid positions (i.e. North Avenue = 1600 N, Cicero Avenue = 4800 W). Thus addresses in Chicago are commonly given two ways: in Cartesian coordinates (3400 North, 2800 West) or as number and name (3324 North California), with the expectation that the nearest cross street, or at least the distance from State Street or Madison Streets can be appropriately deduced from the address number (i.e. 3324 N = slightly more than 4 miles north of State and Madison Streets). Diagonal streets are given directional suffixes based on whether their angle is more vertical or more horizontal, and their numbering corresponds with the rest of the grid.
- In Detroit, Michigan, and the suburbs to the north, major roads were generally built every mile, and many of the east-west roads are numbered in the Mile Road System based on their distance from the start of Michigan Avenue. These roads are named with "Mile Road", from 5 Mile to 37 Mile. Addresses in much of the area are counted from the beginning of Woodward Avenue in Detroit, with roughly 2000 addresses assigned per mile, not coinciding with the Mile Road numbers; for instance, 8 Mile is the 20700 block, not 800 or 8000.
- In Melbourne's Central Business District, the streets were laid out in what has become known as the Hoddle Grid. It is 1.6 km long by half a mile wide .80 km (1 mile by .5 miles.) The major streets are 1.5 chains wide (30m) and halfway between the city's major thoroughfares that run parallel to the Yarra River are the "little" streets. These streets share the same name as the major street to the south (Flinders St, Flinders Lane; Collins Street, Little Collins Street; Bourke Street, Little Bourke Street; Lonsdale Street, Little Lonsdale Street; and finally La Trobe Street) and are only half a chain wide. This means that in modern times they are only one way streets, but they allow each city block to be exactly 10 chains square. Many Melbournians are able to recite the 19 streets that make up the Hoddle Grid in order.