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Q From Joe Price: I live in an area named Hampton Roads, Virginia. When people ask me why the area is named after its roads, I have to explain that its an old nautical term, or something. Do you have a quick and easy explanation that I can use in the future?

A “Quick and easy”? That’s not what I do ...

The history of road is closely linked to that of both ride and raid. It’s actually from the past tense of the Old English verb to ride, which we retain in a different spelling. In Old English road meant a journey on horseback. A little later it came to mean riding with hostile intent, hence the raid sense, raid being an old Scots form of road. The much later creation inroad preserves this meaning.

By about 1300 road could also refer to a ship riding on the waves. Out of this came the harbour sense of road, a partly sheltered stretch of water near the shore in which ships could ride at anchor, as in roadstead, in which the second part is the obsolete stead for a place.

Our sense of a road as being a fixed route or line on land for getting from one place to another came along much later, at the very end of the sixteenth century (Shakespeare is the first known user). This explains the old joke that there are no roads in the City of London (the medieval core of the metropolis), as indeed there aren’t: all the ways there had been named before the word came into the language.

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Page created 13 Jan 2007