What do you call the grassy strip between sidewalk and roadway — that area perhaps owned by the municipality but whose care falls to the homeowner?
If you said “boulevard” you may be from Minnesota, or from another part of the Upper Midwest, or perhaps more particularly from Minneapolis.
But ask this question of a cross section of English speakers and you will get a bewildering blizzard of different terms in response. (And you will get quite a few totally blank stares.) Our fellow Americans and other English speakers have dozens and scores of names for this simple thing.
Scott Kunst, writing a few years back on the site of Old House Gardens (“America’s Expert Source for Heirloom Flower Bulbs”), identified 41 terms for what we might as well here settle on calling the “boulevard.” He has been collecting them for years. The inevitable Wikipedia article, this one filed under “road verge” but linked from who knows how many other terms, lists 50. I have collected a half dozen more (jumbled together in the Wordle above).
In fact I would advance a thesis that there may be more names in active circulation for the post-sidewalk, pre-street space than for any other identifiable thing in the natural or built environment.
|berm||New Zealand; mid-Atlantic to the old Northwest|
|boulevard||MN, ND, Vancouver BC|
|devil strip||OH, WV, MI|
|easement||MO, IA, IL, OH, MI|
|parking||chiefly IA & KS|
|parkway||NY, western NE, southern CA|
|tree belt||western MA|
|tree lawn||MI, OH|
|verge||Northeast & west coast|
Harvard University ran a large survey on US dialect, concluded in 2003, with nearly 31,000 participants. One of the 122 questions in the survey was “What do you call the area of grass between the sidewalk and the road?” Unfortunately for our purposes, only 7 choices were offered: beltway, berm, curb strip, parking, terrace, tree lawn, and verge. The commonest answer was “I have no word for this” (67.9%) followed distantly by “other” (12.3%). “Curb strip” led the rest at 8.7%.
Any particular one of the terms peppered throughout this article would surely command fewer than 10% of responses to such a survey.
The UW Madison linguistics department hosts the results of the Harvard survey, which are presented in the form of simple US & state outline maps showing where respondents claimed their terms were used.
Since late 2013 the New York Times has had online a 25-question subset of the Harvard study — apparently the site picks a random 25 questions from the original 122 each time the survey is visited. Our question sometimes comes up. It did when I took the quiz, one of over 350,000 to have done so over the last four years. This has been the Times’s most popular quiz by far.
The professor behind the Harvard Dialect Survey, Bert Vaux, moved on to UW Madison and later to Cambridge in the UK. An updated version of the survey, now called The Cambridge Online Survey of World Englishes, is hosted there. Our question survives in this latest survey incarnation.
For a more anecdotal stroll on the boulevard, spend a few minutes perusing the discussion that ensued when Cecil Adams’s The Straight Dope took on the question a decade ago.
Those of you who use Facebook can check out the comments to GrammarGirl’s post on the subject.
If any one “boulevard” term can be said to possess linguistic momentum at this point, it would probably be “hellstrip.” This denomination has been in use for some time in the lawn-care industry and got a boost almost four years ago with the publication of Hellstrip Gardening: Create a Paradise between the Sidewalk and the Curb.
The Wikipedia article cited above notes that “hellstrip” once referred to the space between streetcar tracks, which was often of insufficient width for a person to shelter on if cars were approaching from one or especially from both directions.
What name do you use for what we have been calling the boulevard?