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.
Search World Wide Words
Recently added pieces
Vape; Bridegroom; Lilly-low; The Language Myth by Vyvyan Evans; Boot and trunk; Zoilism; Fish-faced; Poach; Immensikoff; Habiliments; The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker; Agister; The Word at War; Not so green as you’re cabbage-looking; Peely-wally; Draw a line in the sand; Porphyrogeniture.
Support World Wide Words!
Donate via PayPal. Select your currency from the list and click Donate.
Buy from Amazon and get me a small commission at no cost to you. Select your preferred site and click Go!