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High Street (or the High Street) is a metonym for the concept (and frequently the street name) of the primary business street of towns or cities, especially in the United Kingdom and Commonwealth of Nations. To distinguish it from "centres" of nearby places it is frequently preceded unofficially by the name of its settlement. In a town it implies the focal point for business, especially shops and street stalls (if any) in town and city centres. As a generic shorthand presupposed upon linear settlements it may be used to denote more precise concepts such as the urban retail sector, town centre sectors of employment, all small shops and services outlets and even wider concepts taking in social concepts.[n 1] The smallest High Street in Britain is located in a small market town in Devon called Holsworthy. The street itself is no more than 100 yards long and there are only three shops located on Holsworthy's High Street.
High Street is the most common street name in the UK, which according to a 2009 statistical compilation has 5,410 High Streets, 3,811 Station Roads and 2,702 Main Streets.
Already in Middle English the word "high" denoted a metaphorical meaning of excellence or superior rank ("high sheriff", "Lord High Chancellor", "high society"). "High" also applied to roads as they improved: "highway" was a new term taken up by the church and their vestries to during the 17th century as a term for all public roads between settlements.
"High Street" gradually adopted a narrower meaning to describe thoroughfares with significant retail in large villages and towns. Since the 19th century which saw the building of more public roads (public highways), in countries using the term motorway, the term highway fell out of common speech as it became more specific to its legal definition, denoting any public road, as in the Highway Code.
In the United Kingdom geographic concentration of goods and services (including at industrial estates and out of town shopping centres) has reduced the share of the economy contributed to by workers in the high street. High street refers to only a part of commerce. The town centre in many British towns combines a group of outdoor shopping streets (one or more of which may be pedestrianised), with an adjacent indoor shopping centre.
This argued in 2006 that the increase in chain stores on high streets contributes towards clone towns, a concept set out by geographical theorists, which denounces the role of most of these stores and out of town developments as "creating a loss of sociability" compared to traditional shopping. Their paper states that members generally agreed with the view that "The demise of the small shop would mean that people will not just be disadvantaged in their role as consumers but also as members of communities – the erosion of small shops is viewed as the erosion of the 'social glue' that binds communities together, entrenching social exclusion in the UK."
High Streets are less commonly seen in Ireland. Neither of Dublin's two main shopping streets (Grafton Street and Henry Street) carry this name, nor does its main thoroughfare (O'Connell Street). While Dublin has a High Street near Christchurch, it is not a shopping street. The city of Cork's main shopping street is St. Patrick's Street; Limerick's, like Dublin, is also O'Connell Street (the name is used in a number of other Irish towns in honor of Daniel O'Connell).
Main Street is used in many smaller towns and villages. For example, the OSI North Leinster Town Maps book lists sixteen "Main Streets" and only two "High Streets" in its thirty-town index of street names. Similarly, the OSI Dublin Street Guide (covering all of Dublin City and County Dublin) lists twenty "Main Streets" and only two "High Streets". Killarney and Galway are two of the few large Irish towns in which the shopping streets are named High Street. Nonetheless, the term "high street" is often used in the Irish media to refer generically to shopping streets.
The term "High Street" is used to describe stores found on a typical high street to differentiate them from more specialised, exclusive and expensive outlets (often independent stores) — for example, "High Street banks" (instead of the less-common private or investment banks) or "High Street shops" (instead of boutiques).
The equivalent in the United States, Canada and Ireland is Main Street, a term also used in smaller towns and villages in Scotland and parts of rural Australia. In Jamaica, North East England and some sections of Canada and the United States, the main commercial district is Front Street. In Cornwall, some places in Devon and some places in the north of England, the equivalent is Fore Street; in some parts of the UK Market Street is also used, although sometimes this may be a different area where street markets are currently (or were historically) centred. In Canada, east of Lake Superior, King Street and Queen Street are often major streets; "rue Principale", as the literal French language equivalent of "Main Street" is frequently used in Quebec towns, and "a village where the main street is still Main Street" is a phrase that is used in respect for small towns. The Dutch equivalent is Hoogstraat, of which examples are found in cities such as Brussels, Amsterdam, Antwerp, Bruges, Rotterdam and many towns. In Germany, the equivalent is Hauptstraße (Main Street), though this can also refer to a road with a lot of traffic (i.e., a highway). In Cologne the Hohe Straße (literally, High Street) is the main shopping street, but was named after a gate at its southern end (the Hohe Pforte, or High Gate).