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What's the Difference Between a Street and a Road?

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Reader Brit asks: "Is there any rhyme or reason to calling a road an avenue, a boulevard, a street or a lane? Is it just at the discretion of whoever names the street?"

Although both terms are often applied to the same thing, a road is different from a street, at least in theory. Looking at the definitions that folks like city planners use and the history of the usage of the words, the difference is a matter of place and purpose.

Roads run between two distant points — two towns, for example. In each of those towns, you'll find streets: paved roads lined with houses and other buildings. It used to be the paving and the buildings that made a street a street, but today you'll find many paved roads that have buildings on them (I grew up on Wisteria Road). Modern sticklers for usage will tell you that what sets streets apart today is the street life that comes with them. On Main Street in a given town, you might find people walking their dogs, having lunch in a sidewalk cafe, waiting for a friend on the corner, or simply people watching. On the road connecting Town A to Town B, you're not likely to find any of this.

The term street, then, should be specifically applied to urban roadways. Streets connect people for interaction, while roads connect towns and cities for travel.

In the real world, though, these textbook distinctions aren't always made.

As cities grow, roads can become urbanized and serve the purposes of streets without having their names changed. Some cities and towns may be planned with naming systems that designate roadways one thing or another without regard to their function. Other roadways serve different purposes along different parts of their length and get different designations accordingly. Pennsylvania Route 611 is a major state highway that runs from South Philadelphia north to Coolbaugh Township in the Poconos. Within Philadelphia, 611 is Broad Street, where you'll find homes, businesses, street life and, on New Year's Day, Mummers urinating everywhere. At the northern end of Philadelphia, PA 611 leaves Broad Street and becomes Old York Road, a historic road that connected Philadelphia to New York City. As it continues north, it also becomes Easton Road, Delaware Drive, and Fox Town Hill Road along certain stretches.

Other Places on the Map

Street sign via Shutterstock

Now that we've hashed out roads and streets, what about the alleys, avenues, boulevards, circles, courts, drives, expressways, highways, lanes, parkways, paths, places, squares, terraces, trails, ways and other roadway name suffixes we use? Here are some select definitions (that aren't always followed):

An avenue is traditionally a straight road with a line of trees or shrubs running along each side, which emphasize arrival at a landscape or architectural feature.
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A boulevard is usually a widened, multi-lane arterial street with a median and landscaping between the curbs and sidewalks on either side.
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A court is a short street that ends as a cul de sac.
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A drive can be short for driveway, a private road for local access to one, or a small group of structures. Other times it refers to meandering, rather than straight, roads and highways.
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An expressway is a divided highway meant for high-speed traffic.
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A freeway is a road designed for safe high-speed traffic through the elimination of intersections at the same grade or level.
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A highway is a main road intended for travel between destinations like cities and towns.
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A lane is a narrow road or street usually lacking a shoulder or a median.
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A way is a minor street off a road in a town.

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Big Questions
What's the Difference Between Gophers and Groundhogs?
Gopher or groundhog? (If you chose gopher, you're correct.)
Gopher or groundhog? (If you chose gopher, you're correct.)
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Gophers and groundhogs. Groundhogs and gophers. They're both deceptively cuddly woodland rodents that scurry through underground tunnels and chow down on plants. But whether you're a nature nerd, a Golden Gophers football fan, or planning a pre-spring trip to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, you might want to know the difference between groundhogs and gophers.

Despite their similar appearances and burrowing habits, groundhogs and gophers don't have a whole lot in common—they don't even belong to the same family. For example, gophers belong to the family Geomyidae, a group that includes pocket gophers (sometimes referred to as "true" gophers), kangaroo rats, and pocket mice.

Groundhogs, meanwhile, are members of the Sciuridae (meaning shadow-tail) family and belong to the genus Marmota. Marmots are diurnal ground squirrels, Daniel Blumstein, a UCLA biologist and marmot expert, tells Mental Floss. "There are 15 species of marmot, and groundhogs are one of them," he explains.

Science aside, there are plenty of other visible differences between the two animals. Gophers, for example, have hairless tails, protruding yellow or brownish teeth, and fur-lined cheek pockets for storing food—all traits that make them different from groundhogs. The feet of gophers are often pink, while groundhogs have brown or black feet. And while the tiny gopher tends to weigh around two or so pounds, groundhogs can grow to around 13 pounds.

While both types of rodent eat mostly vegetation, gophers prefer roots and tubers (much to the dismay of gardeners trying to plant new specimens), while groundhogs like vegetation and fruits. This means that the former animals rarely emerge from their burrows, while the latter are more commonly seen out and about.

Groundhogs "have burrows underground they use for safety, and they hibernate in their burrows," Blumstein says. "They're active during the day above ground, eating a variety of plants and running back to their burrows to safety. If it's too hot, they'll go back into their burrow. If the weather gets crappy, they'll go back into their burrow during the day as well."

But that doesn't necessarily mean that gophers are the more reclusive of the two, as groundhogs famously hibernate during the winter. Gophers, on the other hand, remain active—and wreck lawns—year-round.

"What's really interesting is if you go to a place where there's gophers, in the spring, what you'll see are what is called eskers," or winding mounds of soil, Blumstein says [PDF]. "Basically, they dig all winter long through the earth, but then they tunnel through snow, and they leave dirt in these snow tunnels."

If all this rodent talk has you now thinking about woodchucks and other woodland creatures, know that groundhogs have plenty of nicknames, including "whistle-pig" and "woodchuck," while the only nicknames for gophers appear to be bitter monikers coined by Wisconsin Badgers fans.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
Why Does Santa Claus Give Coal to Bad Kids?
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The tradition of giving misbehaving children lumps of fossil fuel predates the Santa we know, and is also associated with St. Nicholas, Sinterklaas, and Italy’s La Befana. Though there doesn't seem to be one specific legend or history about any of these figures that gives a concrete reason for doling out coal specifically, the common thread between all of them seems to be convenience.

Santa and La Befana both get into people’s homes via the fireplace chimney and leave gifts in stockings hung from the mantel. Sinterklaas’s controversial assistant, Black Pete, also comes down the chimney and places gifts in shoes left out near the fireplace. St. Nick used to come in the window, and then switched to the chimney when they became common in Europe. Like Sinterklaas, his presents are traditionally slipped into shoes sitting by the fire.

So, let’s step into the speculation zone: All of these characters are tied to the fireplace. When filling the stockings or the shoes, the holiday gift givers sometimes run into a kid who doesn’t deserve a present. So to send a message and encourage better behavior next year, they leave something less desirable than the usual toys, money, or candy—and the fireplace would seem to make an easy and obvious source of non-presents. All the individual would need to do is reach down into the fireplace and grab a lump of coal. (While many people think of fireplaces burning wood logs, coal-fired ones were very common during the 19th and early 20th centuries, which is when the American Santa mythos was being established.)

That said, with the exception of Santa, none of these characters limits himself to coal when it comes to bad kids. They’ve also been said to leave bundles of twigs, bags of salt, garlic, and onions, which suggests that they’re less reluctant than Santa to haul their bad kid gifts around all night in addition to the good presents.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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