I'm trying to find out how the name High Street and Highway came about and I have found two conflicting meanings of high.

One is that it comes from Roman roads as they were built higher than their surroundings.

"The word highway goes back to the elevated Roman roads that had a mound or hill formed by earth from the side ditches thrown toward the centre, thus high way."


And the other is that it comes from high meaning principle, as in the main street.

"The name seems to have emerged in the 12th century when the word ‘high’ began to be used to indicate something or someone of a higher, or more important, status than others."


Which of these origins is correct?

  • As the two expressions have different meanings (the main street in a town and a major road between towns), why shouldn't both derivations be true? Feb 2, 2017 at 11:21
  • The references I linked suggest highway and high street both have the same origins.
    – user198750
    Feb 2, 2017 at 11:31
  • In many towns in the US "High Street" is up on a ridge, while the rest of the town is on the river plane below. Often the ritzy houses would be up on High Street. I would guess that something of the same reason might apply to other cases, where "High Street" traverses the slightly higher, better draining, less swampy section of town.
    – Hot Licks
    Feb 2, 2017 at 13:02
  • @HotLicks Oh, but there's never any consistency to names. Near where I grew up, Beach Boulevard is the road that leads to the beach— 10 miles away— and not the road that runs along it.
    – choster
    Feb 2, 2017 at 15:23

1 Answer 1


The term high comes from the Old English usage meaning main, excellent in type or degree (also high society, high priest have the same connotation) as suggested by the following sources:

High Street

  • We have to go back a very long way to search out its origin. In Old English, the word high meant something excellent of its type or of elevated rank or degree (we still have terms like high society, high priest and high sheriff that are based on it).
  • Very early on, high began to be applied to main roads. The first example is highway, recorded from the early ninth century. This referred to a main road between two towns or cities, one that was under the special protection of the monarch as an essential communications link (hence the later phrase the king’s highway to refer to such important roads).

From World Wide Words


  • Old English heahweg "main road from one town to another;" see high (adj.) in sense of "main" + way (n.). High street (Old English heahstræte) was the word before 17c. applied to highways and main roads, whether in the country or town, especially one of the Roman roads.

  • In more recent usage, it generally is the proper name of the street of a town which is built upon a highway and was the principal street of the place. Highway robbery is from 1707; as a trivial expression for something too costly, 1886.


  • So it isn't anything to do with Roman roads being raised or elevated?
    – user198750
    Feb 2, 2017 at 11:38
  • The term dates back to Old English usage of "high" whose connotation is explained above. I think this is the more plausible origin.
    – user66974
    Feb 2, 2017 at 11:44
  • 2
    @JOSH The OED etymology reflects the same uncertainty but makes some interesting points. In very abridged form Compare post-classical Latin via alta...1257...also altus cheminus (from 13th cent), altus vicus (from 14th cent.). ...in many cases it is possible that putative forms represent either Old English hīegweg hay way or hegeweg hedge way (compare hay n.2), although both of these compounds are unattested outside charter bounds; corroborating topographical evidence is often unavailable.
    – WS2
    Feb 2, 2017 at 13:07
  • "There's doctors and lawyers and men of the high degree; Some of 'em wants to marry, and some will marry me." (Lolly-true-dum day)
    – Airymouse
    Feb 2, 2017 at 13:49