As long as there were no towns, people did not need the word street. Yet in our oldest Germanic texts, streets are mentioned. It is no wonder that we are not sure what exactly was meant and where the relevant words came from. Quite obviously, if a word’s meaning is unknown, its derivation will also remain unknown. Paths existed, and so did roads. Surprisingly, the etymology of both words (path and road) is debatable. This holds even for road, which looks perfectly transparent (isn’t a road a place meant for riding? See the post for 20 August 2014). Path is even more obscure (see the post for 4 November 2015). As could be expected, there is no native Common Germanic word for “street.”
Today’s definition of street is less straightforward than one can expect (the pun, though unintentional, was too apt to sacrifice). I am quoting The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology: “… paved road, highway (surviving in names of ancient roads such as Watling Street); road in a town or village.” Engl. street, like its cognates in Dutch and German (straat, Straße), goes back to Latin strata, a feminine adjective, part of the phrase via strata “straight way.” Italian strada and Spanish estrada are derived from the same source.
In English, the word is old and occurs, among others sources, in Beowulf. Even though the date of the poem is a matter of contention, there is, I think, enough reason to believe that the text was composed in the eighth century and reflects the realities of that time (the manuscript is two centuries later, and the action seems to be set in the early 700’s).The poet informs us that the “street” (strǣt) Beowulf and his companions rode to the king’s palace was stānfāh, that is, embellished with stones, most likely, paved. In any case, it was not lined with houses. In the same poem, the word strǣt occurs as the second element of two compound nouns designating “way across the sea.” It follows that the strǣt did not have to be “straight.”
From the fourth century CE we have part of the New Testament translated into Gothic, a Germanic language, now dead. In the extant part of the text, the translator (Bishop Wulfila) needed the word for “street” twice. Here are the relevant passages from the Authorized Version. Luke XIV: 21: “Get out quickly into streets and lanes of the city….”; and M VI: 5: “…for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets….” Wulfila used different words for “street,” though in the Greek text, the word was the same, namely plateîa, a feminine adjective, like Latin strata, with the noun following it (hodós) implied. In Classical Greek, hodós meant “way,” while “street” was only one of the word’s senses. Engl. hodology, if you are interested, means “study of pathways.” (For “lanes” older Biblical Greek has hrúmas, approximately, “narrow streets”; the Gothic gloss for it is staigos “paths.”)
In the first passage, Gothic has gatwo, and in the second, plapjo. Wulfila was a translator of great talent, and his choice of words was remarkable. Obviously, he did not equate “streets and lanes” with the “corners of the streets.” He seems to have needed a derogatory term for those corners, but no one knows anything about his plapjo. A place where people’s tongues went “plap-plap,” that is, where passers-by “blabbered”? A sound-symbolic or sound-imitative piece of Gothic slang? We will leave hypocrites to their own devices, let them pray at the crossroads, in the hedges, or wherever they wish, and turn to gatwo. Despite some phonetic difficulties, which I’ll pass by, gatwo is probably a cognate of (Old) Icelandic gata, known to many from Modern Swedish, Norwegian, and Danish gata ~ gate ~ gade.
This brings us to Engl. gate. There are two words, spelled and pronounced as gate. One means “street,” again surviving in place names. It also meant “journey” and “manner of going,” familiar to us from gait (which is another spelling of the same word; no connection with gaiters!). This gate appeared only in Middle English and is, almost certainly, a borrowing of Scandinavian gata. Even if we assume that gata and Gothic gatwo are related, we will still know next to nothing about their etymology. However, the Gothic word held enough appeal to its neighbors to be taken over into the Baltic languages. In Latvian, it exists almost in its primordial form (gatwa); the Lithuanian form is nearly the same.
Sometimes the impression is that with gata, gatwo, and the rest the situation is the same as with path. It is as though we are dealing with a migratory Eurasian word. First, there is another and much more familiar Engl. gate “a hinged barrier” (the family names Yeats and Yates go back to this word). Its cognates usually mean “gap, hole, opening; anus.” More important, in Sanskrit and Avesta, gātù– designated “way, path,” seemingly from “path across a swamp,” and in Slavic, gat’ and other forms like it mean “dam, dyke; rubble; brushwood, etc.” All of them refer not so much to impassable places as to the means of crossing them. Engl. gat1 and gat2 are believed to be unrelated.
Numerous ingenious attempts have been made to explain the origin of gatwo. Perhaps ga– is a prefix (such a prefix existed; German ge– in genug and e- in its English congener enough are the relics of ga– ~ ge-). Or –two may have something to do with the numeral two (“a passage between two sides”?). Conversely, ga– may be a stub of the word for “go.” Those are the most attractive of the many hypotheses offered in the past. Modern dictionaries only say mournfully: “An obscure word” or “Origin unknown.”
In all probability, the Germanic word for “street” (gatwo and its look-alikes) referred to some passage. German has the expected word Straße “street” and Gasse, a cognate of Engl. gate “street,” and it means “a small street; lane.” But Wulfila used staigos for the “lanes” of the Authorized Version. If he were writing Modern German, he would probably have said: “Straßen und Gassen.” It would be good to get some help from the etymology of the word lane. This word is old and has cognates in Old Frisian, Dutch (both Middle and Modern), and Scandinavian. Characteristically, in Old Icelandic, it meant “barn; great heap; row of houses,” and “street.” Once again we have to conclude that “street” is not the word’s original meaning, but one wonders what “barn” and “heap” have to do with a row of houses. The Icelandic house was made up of several sections; one was meant for the sheep that warmed the place in winter by their breath. Hence “row of houses” and “heap”? In Old English, lane sounded as lane (two syllables!) and lanu, and this is all we know about it. The suggested etymologies are uninspiring, to say the least.
It must have been hard to be streetwise in the Germanic-speaking world two thousand years ago and some time later. One is left with the conclusion that, except for street, which is a borrowing, we have no clue to the words so important for the history of medieval material culture.
Featured Image Credit: This is an Icelandic house. Is the way from it to our street straight? Image credit: Turf roof of Glaumbaer, Iceland by TommyBee. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.