“The” before a road name: how come?

Source: WordPress

Source: WordPress

For those of you who missed last week’s kick off of the new “how come?” feature at All In, here’s the deal: you ask a question about the region, we post it here, and solicit answers from others in the community.

For example, last week, we had a question about Amish in the north country. We had a real expert weigh in on that one, Karen Johnson Weiner.

This week, our question comes from Donica Margaret via our Facebook page. She asks:

“How come people here call a road “the” whatever road? As in, Suzie lives in the green house on The Smith Road (instead of just Smith Road). My husband and I aren’t from here and I find it to be so…odd? My husband, a fluent French speaker, assumes that it’s a French influence (e.g., la rue).”

Where we come from, Bill is holding those turkeys on The Maple Ridge Road. Right?

Where we come from, Bill is holding those turkeys on The Maple Ridge Road. Right? Photo: Ellen Rocco

Then, someone pointed out that this custom seems to apply only where it’s a road name–the “the” is not there when we refer to a route or an avenue.

And, Gary Pierce wrote, “Good one, Donica. I’ve lived here all my life and never realized that until someone from Buffalo pointed it out to me. Example, I tell people I live on “the” Harper Road, where as my friend says I live on Harper Road.”

While I grew up in Manhattan, I’ve lived here long enough to have adopted the “the” custom. I definitely use it when speaking about the road someone lives on. Always. The only example of an anomalous “the” that I can think of from my childhood is “The” Bronx. None of the other boroughs have a “the” — it’s stand alone for Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn and Staten Island.

I searched briefly to see if I could find out why The Bronx has a “the.”Couldn’t find a definitive answer, but I’m guessing that it has something to do with being named after The Bronx River. Maybe? Here’s a link to The Bronx Historical Society’s page.

Okay, I don’t think we’ve really answered the “the” question. I’m going to see if our word friend, Grant Barrett of “A Way With Words” can help us out.

Stay tuned…or post your theory below. And, remember, we’re looking for your questions–from the trivial to the deep and meaningful. It’s all good. Email those questions to ellen@ncpr.org and we’ll see if someone can answer them.

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9 Comments on ““The” before a road name: how come?”

  1. verplanck says:

    I have heard this too from my SO’s parents (generations-old north country folks). My guess is family names. Smith Road may have led to the Smith’s farm. So back in the day, someone could have said “take the road to the Smith’s Farm”. In time, that could be shortened to “the Smith Road”.

    IIRC, that phrase typically comes up just after a verb, as in “let’s take the Smith Road to Massena”. I think it also it applies to name-based roads only. Do folks take “The Oak Street”? I don’t think I’ve heard that formulation.

    Nice catch, I didn’t realize that was a thing until now…

  2. BillJ says:

    Not just a North country thing. People in Central and Western NY do this with numbered routes, including the thruway. “Get on the 490 and take that to the 90”

    Blech.

  3. Pete Klein says:

    Maybe its a local thing for some areas but I have never said nor have I ever heard anyone say “The such and such road.”
    Sounds like overuse of the word “the”, much like many people use the word “that” when it is not needed.

  4. verplanck says:

    As a capitol district native, this is not the way we say things, so it’s not upstate-wide. “Get on 20 and head west” is how we’d say it. Though I think we’re the only people who call 87 “The Northway”

  5. Robin says:

    Isn’t that a Canadian thing, to put “the” before a numbered route? “Take the four-oh-one, then the four-sixteen north to Ottawa”. I always thought it sounded cool so I say that all the time now with numbered routes ….
    And yes, I generally say “the” before the name of a road, but never before a street.
    And talking of streets and roads, what’s with the thing around here when a village street continues out into the countryside, you call it “street road?” For instance in Canton, there is Miner Street in the village, and it continues out as “Miner Street Road.”

  6. Ron Spooner says:

    Another local colloquialism is to add ‘road’ to a street name such as Pearl Street Road! When referring to New Jersey it is common use to just say, “Jersey.” I have never heard anyone say they are going to Hampshire, or England. We wonder why some folks from another country have difficulty learning the language. We are all to blame.

  7. Ellen Rocco says:

    Okay, friends. We’ve had a response from A Way With Words host Grant Barrett…and it appears we’ve come up with something of a stumper. He said: If you want to do some more googling, search for “definite articles” and “proper nouns” together. I wasn’t able to quickly find anything specifically about the definite article usage in your neck of the woods.

    Here’s a link Grant shared about the use of articles before proper nouns: http://www.mhhe.com/mayfieldpub/tsw/art-pnou.htm

    And this link to a similar conversation at another blog site:
    http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=2844

    More ruminations on the use/non-use of articles before proper nouns:
    http://separatedbyacommonlanguage.blogspot.com/2007/04/gambia-lebanon-etc.html

    And, someone willing to give a definitive answer about The Bronx:
    http://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/500/why-is-the-bronx-called-the-bronx

    Grant also recommended tracking further through some of the links in the comments that follow these blog entries. If you have time to do the search and find out anything interesting, let us know. For now, we’ve just got to accept that it’s a regional quirk (shared, apparently, with Canada and California where roadway number names are preceded by “the” as in “the 401”).

  8. Bill says:

    I, too, am from New York City, but I have been living up here for over a decade. I always heard that Bronx county was called “the Bronx” as a kind of historical holdover. It was once the land owned by “the Bronk” family of 17th-century Dutch extraction, and that genitive usage turned into the common idiom. To me, the real question of that is why “Bronks” turned into “Bronx.” Why use an “x” unless you need an algebraic variable? Up here, I ended up using “the” before road names, too. Anything is more poetic than a number.

  9. Ellen Rocco says:

    Bill–If you check the last link I included in my previous comment you’ll see that the river probably took it’s name from the Bronk family…Bronk’s River, if you will. And, in Dutch, the possessive ‘s is colloquially changed to an x, or Bronx.

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