An etymological journey paved with excellent intentions



As can be guessed from the above title, my today’s subject is the derivation of the word road. The history of road has some interest not only because a word that looks so easy for analysis has an involved and, one can say, unsolved etymology but also because it shows how the best scholars walk in circles, return to the same conclusions, find drawbacks in what was believed to be solid arguments, and end up saying: “Origin unknown (uncertain).” The public should know about the effort it takes to recover the past of the words we use. I am acutely aware of the knots language historians have to untie and of most people’s ignorance of the labor this task entails. In a grant application submitted to a central agency ten or so years ago, I promised to elucidate (rather than solve!) the etymology of several hundred English words. One of the referees divided the requested number of dollars by the number of words and wrote an indignant comment about the burden I expected taxpayers to carry (in financial matters, suffering taxpayers are always invoked: they are an equivalent of women and children in descriptions of war; those who don’t pay taxes and men do not really matter). Needless to say, my application was rejected, the taxpayers escaped with a whole skin, and the light remained under the bushel I keep in my office. My critic probably had something to do with linguistics, for otherwise he would not have been invited to the panel. In light of that information I am happy to report that today’s post will cost taxpayers absolutely nothing.


According to the original idea, road developed from Old Engl. rad “riding.” Its vowel was long, that is, similar to a in Modern Engl. spaRad belonged with ridan “to ride,” whose long i (a vowel like ee in Modern Engl. fee) alternated with long a by a rule. In the past, roads existed for riding on horseback, and people distinguished between “a road” and “a footpath.” But this seemingly self-evident etymology has to overcome a formidable obstacle: in Standard English, the noun road acquired its present-day meaning late (one can say very late). It was new or perhaps unknown even to Shakespeare. A Shakespeare glossary lists the following senses of road in his plays: “journey on horseback,” “hostile incursion, raid,” “roadstead,” and “highway” (“roadstead,” that is, “harbor,” needn’t surprise us, for ships were said to ride at anchor.) “Highway” appears as the last of the four senses because it is the rarest, but, as we will see, there is a string attached even to such a cautious statement. Raid is the Scots version of road (“long a,” mentioned above, developed differently in the south and the north; hence the doublets). In sum, road used to mean “raid” and “riding.” When English speakers needed to refer to a road, they said way, as, for example, in the Authorized Version of the Bible.


No disquisition, however learned, will answer in a fully convincing manner why about 250 years ago road partly replaced way. But there have been attempts to overthrow even the basic statement. Perhaps, it was proposed, road does not go back to Old. Engl. rad, with its long vowel! This heretical suggestion was first put forward in 1888 by Oxford Professor of Anglo-Saxon John Earle. In his opinion, the story began with rod “clearing.” The word has not made it into the Standard, but we still rid our houses of vermin and get rid of old junk. Rid is related to Old Engl. rod.


Earle’s command of Old English was excellent, but he did not care much about phonetic niceties. In his opinion, if meanings show that certain words are allied, phoneticians should explain why something has gone wrong in their domain rather than dismissing an otherwise persuasive conclusion as invalid. This type of reasoning cut no ice with the etymologists of the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Nor does it thrill modern researchers, even though at all times there have been serious scholars who refused to bow to the tyranny of so-called phonetic laws. Such mavericks face a great difficulty, for, if we allow ourselves to be guided by similarity of meaning in disregard of established sound correspondences, we may return to the fantasies of medieval etymology. Earle tried to posit long o in rod, though not because he had proof of its length but because he needed it to be long. A. L. Mayhew, whom I mentioned in the post on qualm, and Skeat dismissed the rod-road etymology as not worthy of discussion. Surprisingly, it was revived ten years ago (without reference to Earle), now buttressed by phonetic arguments. It appears that rod with a long vowel did exist, but, more probably, its length was due to a later process. In any case, Earle would have been thrilled. I have said more than once that etymology is a myth of eternal return.

Before 1917, crowds of prisoners in shackles marched along the Vladimir Highway, known as Vladimirka, to the place of their exile in Siberia. (Isaak Levitan. The Vladimirka (1892). Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)
Before 1917, crowds of prisoners in shackles marched along the Vladimir Highway, known as Vladimirka, to the place of their exile in Siberia. (Isaak Levitan. The Vladimirka (1892). Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Whatever the origin of road, we still wonder why its modern sense emerged so late. In 1934, this question was the subject of a lively exchange in the pages of The Times Literary Supplement. In response to that discussion the German scholar Max Deutschbein showed that Shakespeare never used road“way” without making it clear what he meant. Once he used the compound roadway. Elsewhere some road is followed by as common as the way between…. We read about the even road of a blank verseeasy roads (for riding), and a thievish living on the common road. The word way helps us understand what is meant in You know the very road (= “journey”: OEDinto his kindness, / and cannot lose your way (Coriolanus). Deutschbein concluded that Shakespeare hardly knew our sense of road.

This sense had become universally understood only by the sixteen-seventies (Shakespeare died in 1616), and Milton (1608-1674) used it “unapologetically.” So how did it arise? Extraneous influences—Scottish and Irish—have often been considered; the arguments for their role are thin. The anonymous initiator of the discussion in The Times Literary Supplement (I am sure the author’s name is known) spun a wonderful yarn about how Shakespeare met a group of Scotsmen, learned something about the Scots, and picked up a new word. The story is clever but not particularly trustworthy. The Irish connection is even less likely. Deutschbein noted that, according to the OED, the compound roadway reached the peak of its popularity in the seventeenth century and disappeared once road established itself. Is it possible that this is where we should look for the solution of the riddle? Etymological riddles are always hard, while solutions are usually simple, and the simpler they are, the higher the chance that they are correct.

No citations for the noun roadway antedating 1600 have been found. We don’t know how early in the sixteenth century it arose, but in this case an exact date is of little consequence. The OED suggests that the earliest meaning of roadway was “riding way,” and so it must have been. At some time, speakers probably reinterpreted this noun as a tautological compound (which it was not), a word like pathway, apparently, a sixteenth-century coinage, and many others like them. Words having this meaning are prone to be made up of two near-synonyms (way-wayroad-roadpath-path); see my old post on such compoundsRoadway could have continued its existence for centuries, but at some time the second element was dumped as superfluous. For a relatively short period road coexisted with way as its equal partner, but then they divided their spheres of influence: road began to refer to physical reality and way to more abstract situations. We speak of impassable roads and road maps, as opposed to the way of all flesh and ways and means committees. Extraneous influences were not needed for such a process to happen.

I often complain that the scholarly literature on some words is meager. By contrast, the literature on road is extensive. A long paper devoted to it was published as recently as a year ago, whence an extremely detailed etymological introduction to the entry road in the OED online. Even if I failed to discern the complexity of the problem and untie or cut the knot, my intentions were good.

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