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Recently I was trying to explain the Dutch word gracht to a friend and I found myself needing a general word for a unit of architecture which joins two places together. I thought about "route", but for me it is a little too abstract (more of a set of directions to take than a physical entity). Is there such a word in the English language? Moreover, if we also include other, nonlinear things cities are made of (plains, squares, roundabouts -- everything that has a name plate on the buildings), is there a word for that too?

  • Seriously, there is no single, all-encompassing yet unambiguous term for this. Eg, many people (at least in the US) would not regard a dead-end road or alley as a "thoroughfare". – Hot Licks Jan 25 '15 at 20:08
  • @HotLicks True, and true for UK too. But the question asks about something which "joins two places together". A dead-end alley doesn't really do that. – Andrew Leach Jan 25 '15 at 20:13
  • @AndrewLeach - Well, something that joins two places together is a "connection". – Hot Licks Jan 25 '15 at 20:15
  • In the most abstract sense those are all land improvements – Jim Jan 25 '15 at 21:42
  • @Jim - That depends on your point of view. – Hot Licks Jan 25 '15 at 21:50
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One such word is thoroughfare.

1. A passage or way through.

a. In general sense; also fig. Now usually merged in sense 1c, exc. in phr. no thoroughfare, no public way through or right of way here.

c. A road, street, lane, or path forming a communication between two other roads or streets, or between two places; a public way unobstructed and open at both ends; esp. a main road or street, a highway.

[OED]

[Sense 1b is marked obsolete.]

The word is most often used of paved or metalled streets, rather than paths or alleys, but the OED definition does cover those and the word could be used of them.

  • When a mother is yelling at her child does she typically say, "Get out of the thoroughfare!" or "Get out of the road!" or "Get out of the street!"? – Jim Jan 25 '15 at 21:40
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When the only maps of directions were paper, they were called roadmaps. Any route, highway, lane, avenue, etc.. from dirt to eight-lane, can be called a "road". (US)

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"streets" is the generic term. We often say "the streets of New York", "the streets of Philadelphia", and when we say that we also mean "avenues", "boulevards", "drives", etc.

  • Yes; we use the plural generically for thoroughfares in a city etc, and so use it far more frequently (in this sense) than avenues, boulevards, crescents, ways, parks and promenades. In the country, [leafy] lanes takes over. Highways and byways covers a larger set. – Edwin Ashworth Jan 25 '15 at 19:47
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Websters: Way

a thoroughfare for travel or transportation from place to place

That meaning seems to be falling somewhat into unuse.

In 1913 Websters was far more definitive about what all is covered:

  1. That by, upon, or along, which one passes or processes; opportunity or room to pass; place of passing; passage; road, street, track, or path of any kind; as, they built a way to the mine. To find the way to heaven." Shak.

Derivative terms include: Freeway, highway/hiway, tollway, byway, walkway, bikeway, hallway, etc. All may be used by wayfarers.

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The word you need is "thoroughfare," although it is not that common a word.

In a city, "street" is generally applicable to all thoroughfares, even those containing other synonyms in their proper name.

In a rural area, "road" serves the same purpose.

  • In the US, at least, a "route" is a numbered roadway with identifying signs at regular intervals. These routes may consist of parts of different streets or roads, and may be overseen by individual states or the federal system. – Steve Littman Jan 25 '15 at 19:42
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A thoroughfare is defined by the OED as 'a passage, or way through'.

There is a standard international road sign which depicts a matchstick figure with a red line drawn through them. In the UK this sign sometimes reads NO THOROUGHFARE.

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    Come on. What does this add to my answer?! – Andrew Leach Jan 25 '15 at 19:41
  • International? It's not used in the U.S., and I assume it's not used in France. – Peter Shor Jan 25 '15 at 20:13
  • @AndrewLeach Probably nothing, but I didn't even see your answer before I posted mine. For that matter, what does your answer add to my earlier comment? – WS2 Jan 25 '15 at 20:54
  • @PeterShor So what? Cricket in an international sport. But you don't see much of it in the USA nor in France! – WS2 Jan 25 '15 at 20:57
  • The sign in Australia seems to be no through road, and not no thoroughfare. In the U.S., the standard warning is not a through street. But no thoroughfare is certainly used in more than one country, so I guess international applies. – Peter Shor Jan 25 '15 at 21:03
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The Wikipedia entry for "gracht", Gracht is lengthy and says "The word is almost untranslatable; for that reason the following terms kanaal, vaart, gracht and singel will be discussed here first," and also, "There is no direct equivalent for "gracht" in the English language, therefore it is best left untranslated." So I'm guessing there is no good answer to your question.

  • OP didn't ask the equivalent/translation of gracht. – ermanen Jan 26 '15 at 14:54
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Even though the question mentions "gracht," I believe Jon C is not asking for a translation of that word, but rather one word that is a synonym for all kinds of structures that allow land-based travel.

I nominate, road, way, or possibly path. I prefer "way" but my reasoning might be odd.

In religions and philosophies that have roots in Hinduism--Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism--there is an important concept that is named dao in Chinese (or tao, hence Daoism, Taoism, and the Tao Te Ching). Dao is almost always translated as "way" but sometimes as "path" or "road." The centrality of this concept in multiple languages suggests to me that it is a word that encompasses many ideas: it is a synonym for many words.

Similarly, in Arabic, the word shar' means "path or way [especially to the watering hole]". That word is exceptionally important because it is the root word of one of the most well-known Arabic words sharia. Again, because an important word in a major language is typically translated as path, way, or road in English, I believe that points to the centrality of those words in English when describing structures for land-based transportation.

I believe the etymology of the way, road, and path also supports that "way" is best term.

Old English weg "road, path; course of travel; room, space, freedom of movement;" also, figuratively, "course of life" ...

From c.1300 as "manner in which something occurs." Adverbial constructions attested since Middle English include this way "in this direction," that way "in that direction," ...

...From the "course of travel" sense comes the figurative go separate ways (1837); one way or (the) other (1550s); have it both ways (1847); and the figurative sense of come a long way (1922).

Adverbial phrase all the way "completely, to conclusion" is by 1915; ... Way out "means of exit" is from 1926. Encouragement phrase way to go is short for that's the way to go.

Conclusion: In English, I believe "way" is the best literal and metaphorical description for the general act of traveling and the structure on which a person is traveling.

  • 1
    What an interesting answer! – Greg Lee Jan 26 '15 at 15:09

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