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A Road By Any Other Name...

Robin and I live in a village called Havelock North. While it is largely self-sufficient, the fact remains that sometimes we need to do things that require the facilities of a larger town. The closest such town is Hastings. Periodically Robin and I drive there. Robin sits in the front passenger seat with a map and does her word perfect imitation of a GPS system.

Eventually the GPS tells me to, “Turn left onto Saint Aubyn Street.”

I turn left. Sometimes after I've turned left the GPS says, “No. The other left...”

“Sorry. I don't do geography very well...”

Once we get ourselves sorted out, we drive along Saint Aubyn Street. Every so often we pass a sign that identifies the street. In order to keep the signs small and thereby reduce the construction expenses to an absolute minimum, the signs all say: St. Aubyn St. This looks nicely symmetric to the eyeballs but it is rather confusing to the brain since the same abbreviation (St.) has two completely different meanings in the phrase as written. We both find this highly amusing and, just for fun, we have decided deliberately to mispronounce it.

“Which way shall I drive today?” I ask the GPS.

“Turn left onto Street Aubyn Saint,” says the GPS.

Or, to be more accurate, the GPS tries to say that. It has proved to be a surprisingly difficult thing to say and again and again the GPS finds herself saying “Saint Aubyn Street” instead.

Sometimes Robin drives us to Hastings and then, of course, it becomes my turn to be the GPS and I have to say, “Turn left onto Street Aubyn Saint.” Not surprisingly, just like Robin, I have enormous difficulty stringing those odd syllables together. There seems to be something hard wired into both of us that requires that all the things we drive or walk along should always be called a Road (Rd), a Lane (Ln), an Avenue (Ave), a Boulevard (Blvd), a Drive (Dr), a Street (St) or a Mews (Mews). Or , in the case of the cul de sac that we actually live in, a Place (Pl). Our brains insists that Street Aubyn Saint is a completely forbidden combination for the name of a drivable surface. Our speech centres just know that it's wrong and they lock themselves down rather than let such an abomination slip past them, thus rendering us briefly mute.

I find myself puzzled by the plethora of names we give to the things we walk and drive along. Just what is it that distinguishes a Street from an Avenue, an Avenue from a Road, or a Lane from any other descriptive suffix? The designations all seem to be applied rather arbitrarily. The interwebs are no help here. They give a lot of definitions of the various terms, many of which, not surprisingly, contradict each other. From this I can only conclude that, for all practical purposes, the terms really are synonyms. However that does not mean that they can be used interchangeably – the names are assigned arbitrarily, but once assigned, they are fixed forever. Therefore it is more than likely that in any given town (or city) you will find that XXX Road is on the opposite side of the city (or town) to XXX Street and that XXX Avenue is nowhere near either of the other two! And let's not talk about XXX Lane...

“What about XXX Lane?”

“I told you that we're not going to talk about XXX Lane!”

“Sorry. I wasn't paying attention...”

Many Americans (at least, those who are fortunate enough to live in a well planned city) are actually much more sensible than the rest of us when it comes to naming these things. Cities such as New York and Washington D. C. try very hard to impose some sort of order on the chaos. These two cities are both laid out on a rectangular grid. In New York,the rules require that all the roads running east-west must be called Streets and the roads that run north-south must be called Avenues.Washington D. C.has a similar scheme though there the roads are all Streets with numbered Streets running north-south and lettered Streets running east-west. Avenues run diagonally and are named after states (thus Pennsylvania Avenue where the White House squats in solitary splendour). However I am told by people who have lived in those places that chaos descends again once you move away from the central city. And of course there are quite a lot of American cities (Albuquerque springs to mind) that like topsy, just grew when nobody was looking. So the solution is patchily implemented at best and is not ideal.

People who have grown up with the regularity of these kind of schemes generally have no real difficulty orienting themselves to the cardinal points of the compass and, of course, they seldom get lost. Unfortunately, this geometrical symmetry encourages the assumption that if you walk up any given street and take the first left turn and then do it again and then do it one more time, you will end up back where you started. This is a perfectly reasonable assumption to make if the roads really are laid out on a rectangular grid. But if you try taking three left turns in succession in most European cities (or in Albuquerque) you will generally find yourself miles away from your starting point since very few of these places are laid out on a grid. The roads, streets and avenues just wander randomly all over the place as the whim takes them, and almost nobody can tell you which direction is North...

As it happens, Hastings itself is actually laid out on a rectangular grid and consequently three left turns in succession will indeed put you back to where you started. However there are no nomenclature rules relating the names to the direction of travel, and therefore the Streets run both north-south and also east-west. Consequently it is unwise to use street names as a clue to the compass rose. Street Aubyn Saint itself runs east-west and intersects with a multitude of north-south saints – Market Saint, King Saint, Queen Saint, Nelson Saint...

Once Street Aubyn Saint reaches the boundaries of Hastings proper, the fun continues unabated. The main street that runs right through the centre of of the city is actually Heretaunga Street (or Saint, if you prefer). Despite it being the main street that goes from one side of the city to the other, you can't actually drive down it to get all the way across because, right in the heart of the city, somebody has plonked a pedestrian precinct down on to Heretaunga Street and all motorised traffic must therefore screech to a halt upon reaching it.Heretaunga Street itself does continue to run through the town on the other side of the precinct, and as the frustrated drivers peer through the fog of random pedestrians, it beckons temptingly.

There is no immediately obvious way to bypass the precinct once you reach it. But a study of the map quickly makes it clear that detours do exist. Street Aubyn Saint is particularly useful for this purpose...

Hastings also takes advantage of the best of all nomenclatural worlds by having another major thoroughfare which rejoices in the name Avenue Road. I've searched all the map indexes, and unfortunately there does not appear to be a corresponding Road Avenue, a Street Road, an Avenue Street or any other interesting combination of suffix names. Pity really. Nevertheless, I remain very fond of Avenue Road.

After a lot of practice I have now (mostly) managed to train my vocal chords to say Street Aubyn Saint without stumbling. Consequently it seems appropriate to try the same game with all the other abbreviations I find on the signposts that pass me by. I particularly enjoy the drive home from Hastings because then we drive along Napier Rural Delivery, turn into Street Hill Natural Logarithm (my very favourite) and then into Brookvale Rural Delivery and finally along Woodlands Doctor. Unfortunately our journey has no Ave Caesar – morituri te salutamus on it. Perhaps that's just as well.

Acknowledgements: I'd like to say a big Thank You to Jane Lindskold who straightened out my initially rather twisted ideas about the design of American cities and the nature of American thoroughfares.

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