Street Names in America is Mystery – Part II

After I wrote Street Names in America is Mystery, there are many great reply. Many of them are already published in the comment section of that blog entry (problem of scattering content everywhere on the Internet), but many came from Google Buzz, and email. The answers are very good, and I want to share it with you. Thanks my friends for always so kind to help me out.

Song Li

basically, as long as you do not create a name conflict in your city’s street name space, and it’s not anything nasty, the local resident, i.e. company or real estate developers can choose the name. Say Apple’s headquarter: 1 Infinite Loop, pretty smart name you-know-why.

For some cities like Seattle, street names are numbered so that people know exactly where they are by reading the street / ave numbers.

If you look at how many street types are there, you will find it even more interesting: blvd, ave, st, ln, pl, ct, ter, etc etc

Robert Mao

I feel city like Seattle’s naming strategy is typical American: 实用但没文化 :) Feb 21

Song Li

@Robert, yes, it’s engineering’s way of thinking, quite practical. I only start to miss Seattle’s street naming convention the night I first drove in San Jose – almost all streets start with “San “, and you don’t know when some west street is actually heading south.Feb 21

Jian Shuo Wang –

The Seattle naming convention is very practical. I actually love it, the MIT style

Shengquan Liang –

Street names near bay area seem follow a different route. Like “El Camino Real” is everywhere, maybe it was an exception? Places like Chicago push the MIT style to another extreme, the street number could be used to measure the distance (#/8) to city center…Feb 21

Jian Shuo Wang –

What is the naming system in Chicago? Didn’t notice that.

Shengquan Liang –

There is a pretty good summary of Chicago’s grid system here:

It is a grid indeed.

Robert Mao –

El Camino Real is a long road. I think EI and Real is from Spanish. “Real” is “road” in spainish I guess.

Maile even sent me a long email explaining this:

Dear Jianshuo,

I saw your post on Buzz, so I thought I would add to the conversation…

El Camino Real does come from Spanish. It means the “royal path/road.” Camino just means “path” or “road” or “route.” Real means “royal.” El is just “the.” You can read more here.

Alma and Serra are also Spanish. Alma means “soul.” Serra comes from the verb “to cut” or “to saw.” It has the same Latin root as the English word “serrated” (like a serrated knife). However, Serra is also a family name, and it was the name of a Franciscan missionary (Junipero Serra), who was involved in establishing several Catholic missions in California in the late 1700s. Maybe Serra St. is named for him?

Quarry is an English word. It means a place to take stones or minerals from the earth (a limestone quarry, for example), a bit like a mine.

Hans is a Germanic name. Perhaps it was the name of an important person, or just an ordinary person, who lived on this street.

Many, many streets in California have Spanish names and this is because California was part of Mexico (and before that even, Mexico was part of “New Spain”). I don’t know a lot about this history, but maybe you can look up something about the Mexican-American wars (after which California officially became a part of America). Many of the towns start with “Santa.” This means “saint.” This goes back to the Catholic tradition–when there were many Spanish missionaries in the area. Santa Ana is Saint Anne. Santa Monica means Saint Monica. San is the masculine form of Santa, so it also means “saint.” Except, you will always see a masculine name after San, such as San Francisco, which is a bit like Saint Francis. Los Angeles means “the angels,” which is why some people refer to it as “the city of angels.”

Each region of America has different rules/reasons for street naming. In Boston and New England, you have a lot of old English names which refer to places in England, such as Marlborough, Essex, Gloucester. And in the old, commercial parts of towns and cities, you have simple names, such as “Water Street,” “Milk Street” and “School Street.” Very often, these streets were named for the activity which took place there, so very likely, there was once a school on “School Street.” And often you have street names that are taken from the names of people or powerful families, such as Cabot, or Lodge, etc.

I grew up in Hawaii, and by law, all of the street names must have some relationship to Hawaii, or be a Hawaiian name. For example, I lived on Manu Mele Street, as a child, and in Honolulu, there is a very big street called Beretania, which was the Hawaiian word for Britain (because it was the British who were the first Westerners to discover Hawaii).

Usually, when you see a city where the streets have a kind of logical system, such as numbers or letters, it means that it was a relatively modern city development–it was planned, or at least, that part of it was. So if you look at New York, the bottom of Manhattan is kind of a mess, and the names are more basic, such as Broad Street, Wall Street, Church street. This is the oldest part of the city. As you move north, the streets are numbered and very straight and organized. This part was where the city started really planning its development.

I think this is a very interesting topic. (I’m very interested in language, names, history, etc.) I’m no expert at all, but I hope this can be a bit helpful, or interesting for you.

Enjoy your stay in California.

Best wishes,


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