Street wise, number wise

The mysterious "bis."

The mysterious “bis,” not to be found in America.

A British friend of mine asked for my address the other day so she could post me a letter. When I sent it to her and she saw my four-digit street address (1438), she replied, “Your address is ridiculous! How long is your street?! I know America is big, but to have a street with over a thousand houses on it is insane!”

After having a good laugh over her comment, I explained to her that my street does not, in fact, have over a thousand houses on it; indeed, my street is quite a small one, spanning only two blocks. I am not, therefore, the one-thousand-four-hundred-and-thirty-eight house on my street (thankfully, as that would be an awfully long walk from the metro).

Rather, my address follows the block numbering system used in many cities in the US, where the house number indicates the position of the house: 1438 means I’m near 14th street, on the block between 14th street and 15th street. The first house on my block of my street is 1400. If you were to cross 14th street to reach the other block of my street, you would find the last house on the preceding block to be 1399. Likewise, my former address in New York City (248 East 23rd Street) indicates I was located between 2nd Avenue and 3rd Avenue.

In Washington, DC, these block numbers are also conveniently noted on the street signs. And the addresses are verbalized in a way that indicates the first two digits relate to the block: I live at ‘fourteen thirty-eight,’ not ‘one thousand four hundred and thirty-eight.’ Moreover, even numbered houses are on one side of the street, and odd numbered houses are on the other. Makes sense, no? (Actually, planned cities are even more ingenious, if you look deeper: there is a single base point or origin – the Capitol, in the case of Washington, DC – and the numbering of all streets reflects the distance from that origin on the Cartesian coordinate system that is the city grid.)

When I was living in the UK, I noticed that house numbering didn’t always work this way on the other side of the pond. Not only do the Brits and Americans have different conventions for naming floors, writing dates, and telling time, but they also have divergent habits for house numbering (just to make things even more confusing).

On some British streets – I never quite worked out the method to the madness, but it seemed to be the smaller streets or culs-de-sac – the houses on one side of the street are numbered consecutively, using both even and odd numbers sequentially, and continuing around and back down the opposite side of the street. On several occasions, this caused me to walk up and down a street in its entirety to reach an address at the beginning of the street. D’oh.

The other thing I encountered in Europe, which I have never come across in the US, is the “bis” address. The first time I came across it, somewhere in southern France, I was mightily confused. At the time, I was still learning French, and I stared at the address I was trying to locate, asking myself what this mysterious new French vocabulary could mean.

Well, I found number 28 bis (right next to number 28), but only later learned that “bis” is not French, but Latin; it means “twice.” It is used throughout Europe, when houses are subdivided or a new unit is added to a street, so the extra door has its own number (basically, 28 b). In the UK, sometimes a fraction is used, e.g. number 28 ½!

This may sound odd, but at least the house has a number, even if it’s a fractional one: some houses in the British countryside, especially in remote or rural areas, don’t have house numbers at all; mail is delivered to them by their house name (e.g. Rose Cottage, Crowdecote, Derbyshire SK17 0DB… yes, I assure you, that is a complete postal address).

No wonder my friend was taken aback by number 1,438. Or rather, 14-38.


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