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High Street

Q From Peter Thomson: Why in the UK, is the main street called High Street?

A We have for so long in Britain called the main shopping street of a town by this name that it is now a generic term to describe shops that cater to the needs of the ordinary public: “With juice bars springing up everywhere, juicing seems to have hit the high street”; “To make a high street shop look like a Prada shop you have to spend a lot of money”.

We have to go back a very long way to search out its origin. In Old English, the word high meant something excellent of its type or of elevated rank or degree (we still have terms like high society, high priest and high sheriff that are based on it).

Very early on, high began to be applied to main roads. The first example is highway, recorded from the early ninth century. This referred to a main road between two towns or cities, one that was under the special protection of the monarch as an essential communications link (hence the later phrase the king’s highway to refer to such important roads).

Around the year 1000 high street started to be used in the sense of a substantial thoroughfare, whether in country or town (street has rather gone down in the world — it used to refer to a road of some consequence, usually one so important that it was paved, a rarity at the time). As medieval towns often grew up (or were deliberately created) alongside such main routes in order to provide lodgings and otherwise tap the possibilities for trade presented by passers-by, the name High Street in time became the name of urban roads containing shops, and hence the main retail centre of a town.

Page created 15 Feb. 2003

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Last modified: 15 February 2003.