‘You can see a plaque recording their [Rimbaud and Verlaine’s] stay in London on Royal College Street in Camden Town’ – LRB 19 January 2023

Interesting that the notorious French poets Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine spent time in London – but what pulls me up short is that plaque ‘on Royal College Street’. It was on a house in Royal College Street, surely, not on the street itself? 

We’ve got ourselves into a fine muddle with the phrase ‘on the street’. It’s the result of our hijacking an American expression without considering the consequences – as we so often do. This hijack took place seventy years ago, and my opening citation demonstrates that we still haven’t fully come to terms with it.

The critical moment occurred when the musical My Fair Lady came here in the form of a film in 1965. The musical, by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, was an adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s 1913 play Pygmalion. It had run in New York for seven years from 1956, and came later to London. It was, of course, the film that had the greatest impact. Loewe’s music was instantly popular, with its witty use of traditional English melodies. But one song in particular changed the English language for ever, and not, I fear, entirely for the better.

‘On the Street where you live’ introduced us to a new phrase, quite normal in the States, but until that point unknown in Britain. Until 1965 the British said ‘in the street’; after the film came out, they changed their idiom to ‘on the street’. It was really very sudden, and a remarkable illustration of the direct impact of American cinema on our daily lives. Beatrix Potter, for instance, told us of the tailor’s shop ‘in Westgate Street’, Gloucester, in her famous tale published in 1903. ‘On Westgate Street’ would have been a weird, alien formulation then, and would have remained so until 1965.  

But of course the phrase was in use much longer than that. 

Boys and girls come out to play,

The moon doth shine as bright as day.

Leave your supper and leave your sleep, 

And join your playfellows in the street.

The rhyme has been traced to the early eighteenth century, and is certainly older. The children forgather ‘in the street’, not ‘on’ it.  To this day ‘on the street’ describes an undesirable state of affairs – someone without a roof over his head, or reduced to prostitution. Substitute ‘on’ for ‘in’ in the last line of the nursery rhyme and see the effect. 

Americans once used the British phrase. In 1881, an American, Henry James, could describe a building in New York as ‘An ugly brick house in Fortieth Street’ – The Portrait of a Lady, chapter 19.

But after 1965 the distinction between British and American use was very quickly forgotten, even by thoughtful writers. Anthony Burgess, in his novel about Christopher Marlowe, A Dead Man in Deptford (1995), had his Elizabethan characters using ‘on’ when he could very easily have given a more convincing period flavour by recurring to the traditional ‘in’. And Vikram Seth (who, let it be said, lived for eleven years in California) has a character in his 1993 novel A Suitable Boy, say that the toy shop Hamley’s ‘is on Regent Street’, which is a glaring anachronism for 1951, in which year the novel is set.  

The substitution of ‘on’ for ‘in has consequences. A few years back I noticed a new delicatessen in London’s King’s Road that called itself ‘Food on Kings’. This not only used ‘on’ for ‘in’ but omitted the word ‘Road’ altogether – an American idiom that’s normal in the US, where everything is pared down to a snappy minimum, and to streets are referred to simply by their names, e.g. ‘on Madison’ for ‘on Madison Avenue’, ‘on Bleeker’ for ‘on Bleeker Street’. The usage suggests itself naturally once the preposition ‘on’ is there.

The problem has been that the new expression has no idiomatic grounding in Britain. Rather than confining the preposition ‘on’ to streets only, we apply it indiscriminately to any other kind of thoroughfare, cutting across existing usage at every turn. We say ‘on the square’ instead of ‘in the square’, which seems illogical. And ‘on the lane’ might denote a final divorce between town and country: ‘the bishop climbed into the back of an unlocked Mercedes on Crucifix Lane near London Bridge in Southwark last night’ (Daily Telegraph, December 2006). A ‘lane’ is, at first sight, a minor road in the country, not a city street, but here it attracts the same preposition as any urban route.     

I still think it’s odd for the preposition ‘on’ to have slipped from Royal College Street in Camden Town to the house lived in by Rimbaud and Verlaine, but I’m inclined to think it’s this lingering unease with an imported idiom that’s the cause of the trouble. 

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