Parkways, driveways, and other words to help people find their “way”

Published 10:33 am Thursday, January 18, 2024

Have you ever wondered why people park on driveways and drive on parkways?

I admit that I’ve definitely wondered that. Multiple times, even!

Comedian George Carlin apparently posed this question in a standup set once, though I’m not sure if he was the first one to ever ask about it. I first heard someone ask this question way back when I was in middle or high school, and I laughed because it’s just one of those funny quirks of the English language. But every now and then, I still ponder why the words seem to be swapped with their uses.

Thankfully, the dictionary can finally solve that mystery for me. I recently read an interesting article from Merriam-Webster’s website about this exact question that’s haunted people for ages. This is what it had to say:

“English is secretly serpentine: what looks like a straight line between words sometimes isn’t. That’s the case with both driveway and parkway.”

“Serpentine” definitely sounds like an apt description of English’s confusing etymologies and other head-scratching linguistic features. Word origins aren’t always as obvious as they seem.

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a driveway is “a private road giving access from a public way to a building on abutting grounds.” Which is a fancy way of saying it’s the path that leads from the road to a nearby building (often your home). And if you don’t have a garage or carport, then most people park their vehicles in the available driveway space.

A parkway, however, is simply “a broad, landscaped highway.” Think of the scenic Blue Ridge Parkway, for example. It’s a nice road that winds its way through the mountains so that people can get great views of the surrounding nature as they travel. There’s no parking your vehicle on the parkway because that would block all the moving traffic, of course!

The answer to all this is quite simple: the words were created and in-use well before we actually had cars and trucks to park or drive.

In the late 1800s, when the word “parkway” was first used, it referred to a broad road through a park. Makes sense, doesn’t it? The way you’d use to travel through a park would be called the “parkway” after all. People used to go for carriage rides through these parks by using the parkway. So by the time cars came along, it was only natural to use them to drive on parkways too.

Merriam-Webster says that “driveway” was in use even earlier. In those days, driveways led to barns where the wagons could pull up to load and unload cargo, and the name referred to what you were doing on the road (“driving” up to or away from the barn, of course). But over time, we shifted away from wagons and the need to deliver or pick up food, livestock, and the like at our barns. But the driveway remained. And when cars and trucks became the major form of private transportation, the driveway became the most convenient place to park your vehicle when you weren’t out and about.

So that’s how this weird-sounding English language quirk came into existence. We never updated the words even though the meanings shifted over time.

As I was reading all about this, Merriam-Webster’s website also recommended another article about how the word “way” is also a word for “road.” I’d never really thought about it before but, in addition to parkway and driveway, there are actually plenty of road-related words which include “way.”

Some examples include highways, byways, expressways, thruways, tollways, and beltways. There’s also right-of-way that you often hear when talking about Department of Transportation projects.

And it’s not just car and truck-related travel which uses way. If you fly by airplane, you’re familiar with words like airway and runway. Trains move across the country on railways, and if they’re located underground, they’re called subways instead. (Not to be confused with the restaurant where you can enjoy a nice footlong sandwich, of course!)

You can go golfing on a fairway or bet on the contestants down at the raceway. Take a stroll off a boat using the gangway. Walk between two buildings using the breezeway.

I’m pretty sure there are other examples too. It’s quite a versatile word.

The dictionary, of course, has several definitions for way, but when it comes to this topic, the meaning is “a thoroughfare for travel or transportation from place to place.” That originates all the way back with Old English, before 1100.

The Old English word was actually “weg” which also has roots with Old German and Latin.

By the 1580s, “way” and “road” were synonymous with each other, to be used interchangeably depending on how the speaker or writer felt.

By the 1900s, more and more of these way words started popping up, like the British motorway at the beginning of the century. Expressway and tollway came into use in the 1940s. Beltway was the most recent word, created in the 1950s.

“After that it seems the big roads had all the way-names they needed,” the article concludes.

I thought all this was interesting to learn. It’s something to think about, at least, the next time you’re stuck in traffic on the highway!

Holly Taylor is a Staff Writer for Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact her at holly.taylor@r-cnews.com or 252-332-7206.