The Mysterious, Contested Etymology of the Word “Downtown”

03/20/2024
The Mysterious, Contested Etymology of the Word “Downtown”

You can find it everywhere: on maps, in the subway, on the minds and tongues of rushed commuters, sprinkled throughout song lyrics and even in our logo. Most North Americans know it as the central commercial area of a city. But for something so ubiquitous, the origins of the word “downtown” are hazier than you might expect.

According to the Oxford Dictionary, the use of the word “downtown” was first recorded 253 years ago, during British soldier William Wemms’ trial for murder in Boston on November 27, 1770. Wemms was among the eight British and Irish soldiers convicted of killing five civilians during the Boston Massacre on March 5 of that year. However, it wasn’t Wemms who first used the word “downtown,” but rather a witness named Nathaniel Fosdick. During his deposition, Fosdick reportedly stated, “That evening, at the cry of fire, I came out of my house, and saw the people running down town.”

Because we have no earlier recorded use of the word, it’s unclear to what or where Fosdick was referring. Historian Mitchell Schwarzer posits two possible origins of the word “downtown.” One is in reference to a city’s harborside area, which is low in elevation and typically a historical center of maritime commerce. Fosdick goes on to explain that the people he witnessed were running “down King Street” (now State Street), which indeed slopes gently downward from the Old State House where the massacre took place, toward the historical harborside center of Boston. The other possible origin, according to Schwarzer, is Lower Manhattan, given its downriver location relative to the Hudson, its low position on maps as Manhattan’s southernmost extremity, and its significance as a resource-rich hub of trade and commerce (which predates its colonization by European settlers).

Stone Street, one of New York’s oldest streets.

Let’s suppose that Fosdick, incoherent from distress, forgot to include the words “to the” between “down” and “town” when describing the direction in which people were fleeing. With this in mind, we can assume that Lower Manhattan is in fact the original “downtown,” as posited by Schwarzer, and that the possible Bostonian origin of the word is simply a misunderstanding.

In “Downtown: Its Rise and Fall,” urban historian Robert Fogelson explains that throughout the 19th century, the word “downtown” spread beyond the Northeastern United States and became an increasingly popular label for the central commercial areas of cities throughout North America, irrespective of their topographical or geographical position relative to surrounding neighborhoods. Throughout the following decades, the word “downtown” would accumulate a plethora of cultural meanings and connotations, which you’ll now find throughout literature, song lyrics, film titles and even slang (we’ll let you find that yourself). One particularly unique quality of the word, which we can thank for its popularity, is its ability to shapeshift between a noun, an adjective and an adverb by simply switching the syllable on which the accent falls.

Unfortunately, the future of the word “downtown” is as uncertain as its past. History has taught us that place names change, and downtown New York is no exception. But for now, we will let Petula Clark remind you that when you’re alone and life is making you lonely, you can always go downtown.

By Lewis Anderson

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