Semiotics and Street Names

Semiotics is the study of signs and their relationships with what they signify, each other, and their users. A street name is a sign that signifies a street(1). What sorts of semiotic relationships exist between street names and streets?

Charles Peirce (1839-1914), the founder of semiotics, distinguished three types of signs based on how they signified:

  • Icons are signs that “serve to represent their objects only in so far as they resemble them in themselves.” In other words, an icon is a sign that signifies something because it has something in common with it. For example, the Air America logo includes an outline map of America in the background. That outline map is supposed to represent America because they have the same shape.
  • Indexes (also called indices by Latin plural fanciers) are signs that “represent their objects independently of any resemblance to them, only by virtue of real connections with them.” This “real connection” could take a number of forms; the sign and its signified could be associated by cause and effect, or by frequent co-occurrence in time and/or space. The canonical example is smoke and fire; smoke is caused by fire and just about always appears right after it, so smoke is an index of fire. A more complicated relationship exists in America between being black and living in a city; after the white flight of the ’50s and ’60s, cities became blacker, and the word “urban” came to signify not only “relating to cities” but also “black” (cf. the National Urban League). Because of their frequent spatial association, cities came to index black people.
  • Symbols are signs that “will be interpreted as denoting the object, in consequence of a habit.” In other words, symbols are only connected to what they signify insofar as people are used to thinking they are connected. The American flag represents America not because it has anything in common with America, and not just because it’s often seen in America, but simply because it is designated as representing America and therefore everyone associates them. Of course, it does have 50 stars (for the states) and 13 stripes (for the original colonies), which makes it not so much a pure symbol as a symbol adulterated with a bit of icon.

The above quotes are from the Commens Dictionary of Peirce’s Terms.

Street names can signify their streets through any of these three types of relationships. Below I have listed the types of street names I can distinguish, beginning with icons, moving through indexes, and ending with symbols.

1. Descriptive adjectives: The most iconic street names are those that simply describe the street. They are the kind of names you might use as descriptions for the street even if there were no such thing as permanent street names. Many cities have a South Street, a Broad Street, or a Main Street, all of which fall into this category. (Of course, South Street may not be particularly far south, Broad Street may just be named after a guy named Broad, and Main Street may not be the center of life in the city, but let’s ignore these cases.) A few more examples: in 19th-century Washington, DC, Boundary Street (now Florida Avenue) marked the northern boundary of the city. In that city’s Maryland suburbs, East-West Highway runs in the direction you’d expect it to. In Detroit and its suburbs, streets like 7 Mile Road, 8 Mile Road, 9 Mile Road, etc., are named for their distance from downtown Detroit.

2. Descriptions of surroundings: Now we are already into the indexes. Some streets are named for nearby landmarks: many cities have a Railroad Ave near the tracks or a Water Street by the waterfront. Canal Street in Manhattan is named for a canal it replaced. Smith Street in St. Peter Port on the British island of Guernsey was named for the blacksmiths that once operated there. Central Park South in Manhattan is named for the park it forms one border of. It is common for a neighborhood to have a street named for it, either running through it or along its borders: Hyde Park Boulevard, Lawndale Avenue, Edgewater Avenue, Woodlawn Avenue, and Kenwood Avenue are some examples from Chicago that run through the neighborhoods they are named for.

3. Destinations: In centuries past streets were often named for their destinations. For example, Chicago’s Milwaukee Avenue is named for its eventual destination. This practice is continued today only in highway names, since city streets are no longer meant to carry intercity traffic. For example, downtown Los Angeles includes highways named Hollywood Freeway, Santa Monica Freeway, Harbor Freeway, San Bernardino Freeway, and Pasadena Freeway, all of which take you to the named destinations. Some streets are named for their destinations top-down style—using the kind of perspective only a planner would employ. Maryland’s Baltimore-Washington Parkway, for example, could not have received that name from residents of either Baltimore or Washington; it dates from a period when highway construction was already a joint state-federal affair. Compare this to Milwaukee Avenue, a name obviously chosen by Chicagoans.

4. Honoring historical connections: Some streets are named for people who lived or worked along them, or events that took place nearby. For example, Victor Hugo lived on the avenue in Paris that now bears his name. It was renamed for him before he died, and according to Wikipedia his address in his last days was “Mr Victor Hugo, In his avenue, in Paris.” Washington, DC’s Anna J. Cooper Circle and Nannie Helen Burroughs Avenue are named for the black pioneers who lived and worked nearby. Paris’s Avenue du Général Leclerc is named for the first French general to enter Paris during its liberation in August 1945. Its southern terminus is at the Porte d’Orléans, the gate by which Leclerc entered the city, where it widens into the Place du 25 Août 1944. New York City’s Amsterdam Avenue is named for the Dutch city that previously stood there. The Holland Tunnel, however, is named not for the previous colonizing power but for the engineer who did not live to see its completion. Similarly, the Outerbridge Crossing between Staten Island and New Jersey is named not because it is the southernmost bridge between New York and New Jersey, but for Port Authority chairman Eugenius Harvey Outerbridge.

5. Systematic names: At this point we are getting close to symbols, signs with arbitrary connections to what they signify. Systematic street names are non-arbitrary relative only to other street names. For example, Second Street is the most common street name in the U.S. The name “Second Street” signifies something about the street relative to other numbered streets, but nothing about the street on its own. Many American cities have numbered streets, and some have far more complicated grid systems. Some of these make use of alphabetical order, like those in Denver and parts of San Francisco. A sort of alphabetical grid exists in the outer sections of Chicago; for example, there is a mile of streets whose names begin with K between Pulaski Road and Cicero Avenue, followed by a mile of L streets between Cicero and Central, and so on, extending out to the Ps on the Northwest Side. Washington, DC’s grid system is one of the most complex I’ve ever heard of, the kind of thing a mathematician would come up with. North-south streets are numbered, but east-west streets are not. Instead, they are named for letters of the alphabet (A through W), and when that runs out they are named for two-syllable words in alphabetical order (Adams, Bryant, Channing…), then three-syllable words in alphabetical order (Albemarle, Brandywine, Chesapeake…), and finally plant names in alphabetical order (Aspen, Butternut, Cedar…).Thus each street name that follows the grid signifies something about its location relative to other gridded streets.

7. Arrays of arbitrary names: Washington, DC also has one avenue named for each state plus Puerto Rico, but they are in no particular order and thus each street name really signifies nothing about the street. Similarly, many cities and suburbs, such as Wilmette, Illinois, have a series of streets named for prestigious colleges. Sometimes entire developments will have a theme, whether intentional or not (e.g., “banal nature-themed words”). I am not sure if I am really justified in separating this category from the following one.

8. Entirely arbitrary names: Many names, of course, are entirely arbitrary and have nothing whatsoever to do with the street they signify. The French playwright Molière, who was born, lived, worked, and died in Paris, has streets named for him in Lyon, Cannes, Toulon, Marseille, Bordeaux, Lille, Rennes, and dozens of other French cities. Similarly there are Washington Streets in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, and probably thousands of other American cities that were not even founded when Washington lived. These street names are associated with their streets purely through the power of convention, making them symbols by Peirce’s definition.

Of course, to those who use these streets regularly, many street names really function as symbols. Many residents of Chicago’s Milwaukee Avenue would be surprised to learn that it actually can take you to Milwaukee (it appears to be slanting in the wrong direction), and it would be easy to stroll down Avenue Victor Hugo in complete ignorance of the fact that the author lived and died there. Not to mention streets like Philadelphia’s South Street, Chicago’s North Avenue, Providence’s West Street, and Houston’s East Street, which are not located at or particularly near the named extremity. For some of these street names it was once different, for others not, but today they are mostly arbitrary signs.

Questions for commenters: Have I forgotten any categories of street names? Do you agree that category three, streets named for their destinations, are indexes?

(1) In Ferdinand de Saussure’s terms, the street name itself is a signifier, while the street is the signified; together they make up the sign.

Cross-posted from Empire Avenue.


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