On the road: expressions with the word ‘road’
Road is, of course, a pretty common word. It’s even left its mark on a couple of cult favourite novels, as I discovered when listening to somebody describing the plot of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road only to realize, when they’d rather thrown me by mentioning cannibals, that they were thinking of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. But what did it mean originally, and how has it cropped up in expressions over the years?
The original meaning… horses?
It isn’t a coincidence that road and rode are homophones; both (probably) share the same Germanic base, and the earliest sense of road as a noun is ‘the action or an act of riding on horseback; a period of riding; a journey on horseback’. Indeed, other Old English senses relate to riding: ‘the action or an act of riding on the waves’, ‘a group or company of riders’, and ‘the act of riding with hostile intent against a person or district’.
It has long been assumed that the modern sense of road developed from these earlier meanings. Either way, we don’t see road meaning ‘a path or way between different places’ until the late 16th century – and the earliest discovered example in this sense is actually figurative: ‘an open roade to sinne’.
The road to Hell is paved with good intentions
This proverb means that intentions are useless in and of themselves; promises and plans must be put into action. Variants are attested to the 17th century, with the similar ‘Hell is full of good desires; and heauen is full of good workes’ found in the late 16th century. Early English versions of the proverb do not refer to roads or paving, but the now-usual form may have been influenced by a verse from Ecclesiasticus in the Apocrypha: ‘The way of sinners is made plain with stones, but at the end thereof is the pit of hell’.
All roads lead to Rome
We looked at this expression when discussing idioms featuring place names; it means ‘there are many different ways of reaching the same goal or conclusion’, and appears as far back as the writings of Chaucer. Fast forward a few centuries, and this expression is transferred to any location considered particularly important – for example, ‘As in Italy all roads lead to Rome, so in America all roads lead to San Francisco’.
Take the high road
To take the high road is to choose the morally superior approach towards something. The phrase, originally and chiefly North American, has a surprisingly short history: it is first attested to 1950, according to the current Oxford English Dictionary (OED) entry.
To send a person over the road
This historical American slang might sound like you’re asking somebody to pop out for a pint of milk, but it’s a little less pleasant than that. It actually means to send somebody to prison.
To take to the road
While this can simply mean starting a journey, to take to the road and to go upon the road also have the hidden meaning ‘to become a highwayman’; following a similar construction, to take to the streets can mean ‘to become a prostitute’. The evolution of these phrases, which have quite different meanings and are never interchangeable, may be due to an earlier distinction between street and road, where a street (as now) was within a city, town, or village and a road was specifically a path between places, rather than within them. Naturally, highwaymen preferred isolated paths while prostitutes depended upon a population.
Gentleman of the road
Speaking of highwaymen, a gentleman of the road could be a highwayman (also known simply as gentleman) – but, potentially confusingly, the term was also used to refer to a commercial traveller or a tramp. Knight of the road is another option for all these people, as well as the driver of a lorry or taxi, and (in Australia) a bushranger.
Middle-of-the-road is an adjective meaning ‘avoiding extremes; moderate’ and is often used of music, with mild disparagement; ‘tuneful but somewhat bland and unadventurous’. In a musical context, the abbreviation MOR is in common use. The adjective was originally used in relation to supporters of the Populist party, in American politics, and policies considered moderate are known as middle-of-the-roadisms. Two other associated words exist: middle-of-the-roadness and middle-of-the-roader.
A rocky road is ‘a process or course of action fraught with obstacles or difficulties’, often used as part of an extended metaphor. Something which decidedly isn’t an obstacle is the ice cream flavour of this name, typically made with marshmallows, chocolate, and nuts (also used attributively of other desserts with these ingredients). The origins of the recipe are disputed, but presumably the rock-like appearance of the ingredients led to the name.