“High Street”

Solihull High Street
Solihull High Street

When I first started spending time in England, one new phrase that was completely unfamiliar to me was the High Street, which the OED defines as “very generally, the proper name of that street of a town which is built upon a great highway, and is (or was originally) the principal one in the town.” By the 1950s, metonymic noun and adjective forms had developed, referring to the shops not just on the High Street proper, but on surrounding streets as well, and the goods that could be found in them. From a 2000 article in Elle: “High-street queen Karen Millen launches her first range of spectacles this season, so nab yourself a pair for that librarian-chic look.”

The closest American equivalent, I suppose, would be “Main Street,” but it’s not really the same thing, and besides, to the extent Americans shop in brick-and-mortar stores anymore, they don’t go to High Street or Main Street shops, but instead to big-box stores like Home Depot and Office Depot located in suburban strip malls.

Imagine my surprise, then, to pick up the Philadelphia Inquirer recently and read, “Retail rents on Walnut Street have gone up 33.8 percent in a year, the sharpest annual increase of all ‘high streets’ among U.S. cities…” True, high street was in quotation marks, but it was there.

It turns out the article referred to a report from the real estate company Colliers International. High street is sprinkled all over the Colliers website, but, surprisingly, it’s an American company, based in Seattle. However, a deepish dive into the site reveals that the company originated in Australia,  merged with a Canadian company in 1976, and moved to Seattle only in 1976.

So it would appear that Colliers’ use of high street is something between an appendage and an affectation. I would say its chances of catching on here are low.

46 thoughts on ““High Street”

  1. As I’ve spent more and more time in the UK over the last twenty years I’ve become enamoured of many British colloquialisms and use them quite often here. Maybe because I’m from Boston and still live in the Commonwealth people seem to know exactly what I’m saying or referring to. Words like “naff”, “dodgy”, “tarted-up”, “high street shops”, “posh”, and many others are immediately understood. The World becomes smaller all the time…

  2. I first started hearing the term in BritComs back in the 1990s. It took awhile for me to realize that it is a general term, and that High wasn’t necessarily the name of the street. That the term derives from a highway going through town was unknown to me until now.

    A Philadelphia Inquirer reader unfamiliar with the term might surmise that the reference in the article refers to high-rent districts.

  3. And I remain baffled at the precise meanings of ‘uptown’ and ‘downtown’ in the US, despite many attempts by American friends to explain the difference in baby language to me.

  4. Yes, it’s a very general term. Most UK towns and cities have a High Street. (Loads also have a London Road. And a fair number have a Broadway — though usually preceded by the definite article or a place name.)

    Which raises a related US/UK difference I’ve noticed. From what I’ve seen of US usage, the ‘…Street’ or ‘…Road’ part of the name seems to be mostly optional (e.g. ‘Kerr and Market’ for Kerr Avenue and Market Street).

    Here in the UK it’s much more an integral part of the name, which is why the bare ‘High’ in Hal Hall’s comment above looks a little odd to my English eyes. Even odder was a page I came across recently which described the UK Prime Minister as living at ’10 Downing’, which just looks *wrong*! Downing is a town in Wales, a Cambridge college, and several places in the US; but the Prime Minister lives in Downing *Street*.

    The distinction can be important. I work in London, and a few years ago I remember a colleague fretting about having directed some US tourists to Gloucester (a town near the Welsh border, over 100 miles from London), and only later realising that they probably wanted Gloucester *Road* (a London street and tube station)!

    1. Sorry, Gidds, for the misunderstanding. I didn’t mean that “High” alone was the name of the street, and I would not say it that way in normal usage. I was merely taking a, perhaps inadvisable, shortcut, to avoid the redundancy of occurrences of the word “street” in the sentence.

      1. College town…are you sure they’re talking about a street, that “The High” isn’t a euphemism, or code, for something else? 😉

      2. And Broad Street is “The Broad”.

        Joining The High and The Broad is Turl Street, which has a junction with Ship Street. That junction means a lot to my wife and myself, as we managed to buy a watercolour of a cyclist riding past it, who, judging by the bike, the clothing, the hair and the position of the shadows, is actually her on her way to work in the morning. But the junction’s more general claim to fame is that, for a long time, the City Council fought a losing battle with jokers who kept modifying both street signs in a scatological manner.

  5. Although ‘High’ is not necessarily the name of the street, it often is. I have just checked my A to Z (zed, not zee) Atlas of London and there are 150 roads called ‘High Street’ in a radius of about 20 miles. This can be very confusing if you deliver mail or are looking for a particular branch of a chain store. Mercifully, you don’t encounter two High Streets close together because each was at the centre of one of the many villages which have coalesced to form London.
    Does ‘Main Street’ or another street name have repeats throughout an area in the US in a similar way?

    1. We don’t have that exact problem in my town. I was ready to say that we don’t even have a Main Street, but Google Maps found me one. It’s about 35 blocks from town center, about two blocks long, but loops back on itself, making it 4 blocks in total driving length (one way each way, with a divided center strip), with fields on all sides, except for a crematorium and its parking lot filling the space adjacent to the outside bottom right corner of the loop.

      On the other hand, we do have a) streets with the same “first”” name but with different “last” names (e.g., Street, Cove, Road, etc), b) streets that change names several times as they go through town, and c) streets that dead-end, them pick up again a block or two beyond.

      1. Oh, and we also have “half-streets,” such as this sequence: 37th St., 38th St., 38½ St., 39th St., 40th St.

      2. 38½ St.? That’s almost as bad as Duck Dodgers in the 24½ (pronounced twenty-fourth and a halfth) century.

      3. WordPress messed up. The reply link in the email opened a box at the bottom of this page with the heading, “Leave a Reply for Neil Rashbrook,” but it pasted the reply to Robin Turner instead. Here it is in it approximate rightful place. “It’s a short, dead-end street about two blocks long (if memory serves). The residents’ decorations constitute an annual Christmas attraction. I don’t know how the residents pronounce the name of their street.”

    2. One of the London streets named High Street is in Croydon, and forms part of what used to be the main road between London and Brighton. As you might expect, the roads north and south out of the town are called London Road and Brighton Road. But before you get from High Street to those, you first have to pass along streets called North End or South End, respectively.

      What makes the situation in Croydon interesting (at least to nerds like me), is that when the village grew into a town, its centre moved northwards. So the High Street of Croydon is not High Street but North End, and High Street is pretty undistinguished, with just a few shops. (Articles are important throughout the English-speaking world, but especially in Croydon.)

  6. The difference in street names between the US and the UK is an interesting subject. Most English towns have a “High Street” and a “Broadway” but rarely have numbered streets.

    One thing I’ve noticed is the differences between roads named after towns. If you live in the UK the town/city you live in generally won’t have a road named after itself, the town-name roads lead to that particular town. If you live in the US however it’s the opposite – if you see “Whatever-Town Road”, you are there already, not heading there.

    1. The one exception to that might actually be high streets… Its quite normal to refer to a village high street as something like Shelford High Street, even though the name is just High Street. With lots of little villages a few miles apart, most with their own High Street, you frequently need to specify the village name to be clear about where you mean.

      Then (and perhaps this only happens in villages that get absorbed into towns and cities) the official name can morph to include the place name. So you get things like Kensington High Street.

      1. Ah, but Shelford High Street, etc, are streets, not roads, which I think was the subject of mattysb’s comment.

        As I understand it, the old BrE distinction between a street and a road was that the main use of a street was to give access to the buildings along it, while that of a road was to allow travel to the destinations at its ends. If those destinations were X and Y, the road would be called “Y Road” at the X end, and “X Road” at the Y end. (Roman roads being exceptions, typically being called “Z Street” or “Z Way”, where Z bears no relationship with X or Y, and usually turns out to be the personal name of some Anglo-Saxon bod.)

        Streets, on the other hand, could be named more-or-less arbitrarily. Often their names would include the word “Street”. (There are even some just called “The Street”, where originally the settlement had only one.) But there might be no common noun included (eg “Eastcheap”, “Poultry”, “Cheapside”) or the name might include others nouns such as “Hill”, “Lane” etc. In more recent times, some streets have been given names including the word “Road”. But, to prevent confusion, one avoids using the name “Z Road” where Z is the name of a place anywhere nearby. (The neighbourhood in South Wales where I was born had streets named “Z Road”, where each Z was a village or small town in Kent, or thereabouts.)

        So I think that mattysb is correct in saying that, in Britain, if you are on “X Road”, you’re not in X. (Barring cases like the “London Roads” in Greater London that lead out of previously separate settlements towards the centre, which used to be all the London that there was.) To me, it is an interesting and surprising fact that the same does not apply in The States.

        Also, I’ve just noticed that I think of a road (in the original, strict sense) as a route, a (thickened) line that you travel over to get to its destination, and I think of a street as a group of buildings with a piece of shared infrastructure allowing access. So you live ON a road, but IN a street, even if its name includes the word “Road”. I lived IN the street where I was born, even though it was named “Z Road”. But I had friends just around the corner who lived ON “X Road”, a genuine road leading to X.

      2. For “others” read “other”. (However many times you check, the typos only become visible once you’ve pressed “Post Comment”, I find.)

      1. Westminster, Tooting, Ealing and Fulham Broadway for instance. Also ‘Broad Street’ is quite common.

      2. I’m originally from Ealing, and as well as Ealing Broadway we have Hanwell Broadway, Southall Broadway and Greenford Broadway. I have family near Kettering in Northants and Kettering also has a Broadway!

      3. OED definition of “broadway”: “A wide open road or highway, as opposed to a narrow lane or byway. From the former practice of treating it as a compound, it has often come to be the proper name of a street, as the Broadway in New York, Hammersmith, Stratford-le-Bow, etc.”

      4. In Boston (MA) we have a Broadway that goes from “downtown” all the way through South Boston with East Broadway and West Broadway splitting off where the end of Broadway comes perpendicular to Boston Harbour. Very long, very busy road.

    2. I imagine the reason for the preponderance of numbered streets and avenues in US towns and cities is that they were probably built after the grid system became popular, whereas British towns and cities have grown more organically over a much longer period of time, making them harder to navigate.

  7. High street in British-English can also refer to ‘low’ end retail. A high street retailer will sell off the peg clothes, for example, or will be a chain found in most town centres. I suspect it is this meaning in use in the Karen Millen quote. High street fashion would be more widely available than designer or bespoke fashion, and therefore much more affordable. For example, Marks and Spencer would be high street, Versace would not.

  8. I imagine Americans find “high street” confusing in the same way I am vaguely confused by “downtown”: I have a rough idea what it means, but am not sure exactly how or why people use it.

    1. Robin:
      In Manhattan, “uptown” and “downtown” are terms which literally refer to the geography of Manhattan Island. The downtown refers to the city below midtown, uptown to the part of the island north of midtown. Downtown also refers to the shopping/entertainment part of any city.

  9. There’s a High Street subway station in Brooklyn, and there’s a one-block long street some distance away from that station called High Street. I suspect that High Street in Brooklyn used to be a much more substantial street, but that most of it was obliterated when they built the Brooklyn Bridge, and Manhattan Bridge, and the surrounding plazas, parks, highways, and train/trolley stations. Of course most of the train and trolley stations are now gone too.

    What’s left of High Street is closer to the York Street subway station than it is to the High Street station.

  10. If you Brits are confused by “uptown” and “downtown,” you’ll be downright flummoxed by “inner city,” which in the U.S. can refer to a district far from the metropolitan core. In fact, it’s a thinly veiled euphemism for “the poor part of town where darker-skinned people live,” or what used to be called, pre-1970 or so, “the ghetto.” “Urban” is used in a similar way (I’ve heard phrases such as “urban cities”). See http://nancyfriedman.typepad.com/away_with_words/2009/03/what-does-urban-mean.html

  11. I used to live in Scotland and many towns there call their main street “Main Street”
    I had always thought “high street” was an English (as opposed to a British) affectation. But, as many have already mentioned, when the expression is used on the radio or tv it seems to be a metaphor for the average town centre shopping experience.

  12. I think the extent to which americans shop at brick & mortar stores depends on where they live. City dwellers where I am (NE) generally shop locally with far less car ownership in the area. I can walk to a smaller big-box store, Target (approx 15mins), and am a 15-minute or less bus ride from a mall where I rarely go. Usually I go to ‘the square’. Squares probably more closely resemble city villages, some actually called ‘_______Village’ (not in NYC), in the sense that each square has its own swath of shops. All in all, I would say Square, specifically in my city, is equivalent to High Street. We sometimes say we’re gonna ‘go up the shops’ or ‘down the shops’.

  13. Outside of New York City, I still don’t really understand the terms “Uptown” and “Downtown”. Do other major US cities – Chicago, San Francisco etc – also have an Uptown and a Downtown?

    Btw, I think “inner-city” is a pretty commonly-used term in Britain, with similar connotations. I imagine it’s a term which was borrowed from American usage. But it’s not really a description that works well in London. The old East End of London – Whitechapel, for example, which was Jack the Ripper territory – would, up to about 20 years ago, have been described as “inner-city”, in the American sense. But the whole East End has become more fashionable, and much more expensive over recent years, partly due to the Eastward expansion of London’s financial district – i.e. the development of the Docklands.

    1. Yes, the term “inner city” became popular in Britain in the ’70s, but it declined after 1980, probably because people realised the nastiest places were often in the suburbs.

      1. It’s a short, dead-end street about two blocks long (if memory serves). The residents’ decorations constitute an annual Christmas attraction. I don’t know how the residents pronounce the name of their street.

      2. There was even a British Telecom advert that played on this. This depends on a bit of London telephone number history. They used to be of the form 01-222-2222 but in order to increase capacity half of them became 071-222-2222 and the other half 081-222-2222. Beattie, the on-screen character present in a series of their adverts, is adjusting to the change in STD code (area code) in preparation for an extra digit being added to UK phone numbers. She is telephoned by a friend with an 071 number, described as “Central London”, to confirm that her “Outer London” number works. Not to be outdone, Beattie calls her friend back on her “Inner City” number, thanking her for verifying her “Greater London” number.

        An extra digit was subsequently added to increase national capacity resulting in 0171-222-2222 or 0181-222-2222. This was possible because the 01 prefix was no longer in use. Finally the London codes changed again to 020-7222-2222 or 020-8222-2222, allowing for even more capacity, not only via 020-7022-2222 or 020-8022-2222 format numbers (which would have been impossible without the leading 7 or 8) but also some new 020-3222-2222 numbers have since been issued. Note that the STD code is now the same for all London numbers again.

  14. Where I am from, if we go shopping in South Shields (a town in the Tyneside conurbation) we go down street.
    If we go to Newcastle (The city of Tyneside) we go to the town. (toon)
    If we go to the city, then we’re off to the London high streets.

    Hope that’s clarified everything!

  15. Aussie:

    We normally call it the “Main Road” or (colloquially) the “Main Drag”. The name of the street or road forfilling this purpose will almost never be related to its status.

    As for downtown and city centre, while both are understood. Generally we just use the acronym “CBD” (for Central Business District). So “Sydney CBD” or “the CBD” (if it was obvious which city was being refered to) would be much more common than the other options

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