Q: Any wisdom on why Americans say “on Main Street” and the British say “in the High Street” for, well, the main street in a town?
A: “High Street,” a chiefly British term for the main shopping road in a town or city, is much older than “Main Street,” its American counterpart.
(If you’re wondering why “Main St.” has a period in the title of this post and “High St” doesn’t, the first illustrates American usage and the second British usage.)
When the British term “high street” showed up in Anglo-Saxon days, it wasn’t the name of a specific street, but merely referred to “a main road, either in a town or city or constituting a principal connecting route,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The term “high” here meant chief, principal, or main.
The first OED example is from an Old English land charter that describes boundary markers in the village of Whittington in Worcestershire: “andlang sices þæt to þære hæhstræte, andlang stræte þæt in langan broc” (“along the stream to the high street, along the street with the long brook”). Published in Worcestershire Anglo-Saxon Charter-Bounds (1990), edited by Della Hooke.
Since “high street” was originally a descriptive term, it was often accompanied by a definite article and lowercased, as in “the high street.” In later use, the OED says, the term was capitalized as the name of “the main street of a town or city,” chiefly “the main shopping street.” And “in some (esp. British) towns, names of this type still retain the definite article.”
The term came to mean a specific road in Middle English. Oxford says it “is apparently earliest attested unambiguously with reference to a particular street in an English town (Oxford)” in this citation: “Þoruȝ al þe heiȝe strete” (“through all the high street”). From The Life of St. Edmund Rich (circa 1300), in The Early South-English Legendary (1887), edited by Carl Horstmann.
And here’s a late 14th-century citation from Piers Plowman, an allegorical poem by William Langland: “Riȝt as syȝte serueth a man to se þe heighe strete” (“right as sight serveth a man to see the high street”).
We’ve expanded this 20th-century example in the OED: “ ‘Maureen is sometimes quite coarse,’ said Marjorie to Jack over carré of lamb from the butcher in the High Street who delivered, and put frills on the cutlets.” From “Rode by All With Price,” a short story by Jane Gardam in London Tales (1983), a collection edited by Julian Evans.
As for “main street,” the earliest Oxford citation for the term is from an Italian-English dictionary published in London: “Rióne, a maine streete, a high way.” A Worlde of Words, or Most Copious, and Exact Dictionarie in Italian and English (1598), by John Florio.
Although the term first showed up in London, Oxford defines “main street” now as “the principal street of a town, esp. in North America. Frequently without article, and as a proper name”—thus capitalized.
The first American citation is from a 1687 entry in the diary of Samuel Sewall, a judge in Massachusetts: “At night a great Uproar and Lewd rout in the Main Street.” Sewall is better known as one of the nine judges at the 1692-93 Salem witch trials—the only one to apologize publicly for his role.
Americans continued using the definite article with “Main Street” in the 17th and 18th centuries, according to OED citations, but began dropping the article in the 19th century. Here’s a 20th-century example, which we’ve expanded, from The Bear, a short story in William Faulkner’s collection Go Down, Moses, and Other Stories (1942):
“Twenty years ago his father had ridden into Memphis as a member of Colonel Sartoris’ horse in Forrest’s command, up Main street and (the tale told) into the lobby of the Gayoso Hotel where the Yankee officers sat in the leather chairs spitting into the tall bright cuspidors and then out again, scot-free.”
As for “in the High Street” versus “on Main Street,” the preposition “in” is standard with such constructions in Britain, while “on” is standard in North America, according to Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (4th ed.). The OED notes that “on” is also used with streets in British regional and Irish English.
In fact, “on” was sometimes used in the sense of “in” in Anglo-Saxon days, “almost to the elimination of the preposition in from West Saxon and the dialects influenced by it,” Oxford notes. And “in early southern Middle English,” according to the dictionary, “on still included the sphere of both ‘on’ and ‘in.’ ”
Since “on” has been encroaching on the territory of “in” since Old English and Middle English, it’s not at all surprising that in Modern English a British tea shop is “in the High Street” while an American coffee shop is “on Main Street.”