“Streets Ahead”

You can find Streets Ahead on the High Street

Wow, this is a tricky one. I confess that I was not even aware of the expression until a reader named Gareth commented, “Is ‘streets ahead’ well-established in American sources? Earliest OED reference is 1885 in Ireland. Recently a character in NBC’s ‘Community’ tried to ‘coin the phrase’, without realising it already existed (for the backstory see http://earnthis.net/2010/04/community-is-streets-ahead/.)”

First of all, in answer to Gareth’s question, no. “Streets ahead” (which the OED defines as “far ahead of something or someone, far superior”) has never appeared in the New York Times–as uttered or written by an American–and that means from 1851 to the present. Yet it somehow has the reputation of being a catchphrase. A New Yorker blog post from January 201o revived the venerable character created by Frank Sullivan for the magazine in days of yore, Mr. Arbuthnot, the Cliche Expert, and had him say this about the then-brand-new Apple iPad:

It reflects the company’s commitment to cutting-edge design and elegant technology solutions. They’re the eight-hundred-pound gorilla in the room. They’re streets ahead of their competition and they have both the ground game and air attack to take on anyone.

I believe, as Gareth suggested, that it all goes back to “Community,” which, by the way, is one of the favorite shows of Elizabeth Yagoda. The excllent article to which he linked (on the blog “Earn This”) explains the whole complicated story, but basically it started during an online competition for best TV show in which “Community” was vying with a couple of other series. A supporter of the other shows tweeted: “both Modern Family and Glee are streets ahead of your meta bullshit.” The creator of “Community,” Dan Harmon,  got wind of this, and, apparently unaware that streets ahead is an actual British expression, spent the next couple of months mocking it online, going so far as to create this animated video on the Extranormal site.
Art started imitating life, or maybe it’s the other way round, with this Twitter exchange between Harmon and a fan:
@tim_stoltz : @danharmon Your hatred of “Glee” has made its way into “Community;” how long till your new favorite phrase makes it?
@danharmon : @tim_stotz I’m putting it in the current script, so it’ll be a few weeks. But I have to get the world understanding it by then!
And sure enough, in the 22 April 2010 episode, Pierce, the character played by Chevy Chase, made a star-crossed attempt to push streets ahead as a catch phrase.
An interesting sublot is that several people posted comments to the “Earn This” article along the lines of this one:
How is ‘streets ahead’ a British or Irish phrase in any way shape or form? I’ve lived in the UK, to the best of my knowledge, for my whole life and have never heard it used until Community.
So maybe, in addition to not being a true NOOB, streets ahead isn’t even a proper Britishism. I await further enlightenment.
Ironically (as U.S. newsreaders like to say), this past fall, NBC announced it was putting “Community” on hiatus. Dan Harmon posted: “Streets ahold.”
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38 responses to ““Streets Ahead”

  1. Hmm, weird. It’s certainly very common in the UK *but* (perhaps crucially) only in retail and business twaddle. A bit like how no-one in day to day life actually says “bespoke”, unless they’re reading out an advertisement. I’d say that it’s in common usage, but only written usage (unless one is a city executive, and they speak a strange language all of their own).

    • To clarify, people not involved in retail and business might write it down/type it, but like the quoted comment above, I’ve never heard anyone actually say it; I think this is because there’s a perception that it’s business-talk like “thinking outside the box” and “proactive” and will make the speaker sound like an arse (whether that’s true or not is a fairly personal thing; I don’t particularly agree). I don’t know why there’s more flexibility with written vocabulary; tabloid headlines are obviously another example of this.

  2. Until I read this column, I’d known “Streets Ahead” only as the slightly mysterious name of a California-based accessories brand. (I’m a “Community” fan, but I apparently missed the episode in question.) According to the About page, Streets Ahead is named for “a South African saying that means ‘ahead of the pack’.”

  3. My wife, who is an anglophile and worked for 5 years (social work, bartender) in London in the late ’60s and early ’70s, reports no knowledge of this expression.

  4. How about ‘miles ahead?’ Do the Brits use that?
    I have promises to keep … and miles to go before I sleep?
    May D

  5. Hmm – pretty well-known British phrase in my experience (as a Londoner). Not just in business circles, though I agree it’s not a term me and my mates are using on a daily basis. But not an expression that elicits puzzled looks.

  6. I have to say I say or hear “streets ahead (of the competition)” or “ahead of the game” on an almost daily basis, but then I do live in East Anglia and listen to Radio 4…

    “Cutting edge” or “bleeding edge” are probably more modern ways of expressing the same idea.

  7. Does the stress fall on “streets” or “ahead”? That is, is the expression “STREETS ahead of the others” or “streets AHEAD of the others”?

    I ask because I wonder if this expression follows the pattern of “miles away” – a common phrase on both sides of the Atlantic, but with different word emphasis: Americans say “miles AWAY,” while the British usually say “MILES away,” or, at least, I think they do.

  8. The stress is usually on “streets” – and like some other BrE commenters I’m surprised by the suggestions that this is not a common BrE expression, or is confined to businessspeak.

  9. I agree with Picky and carlbob, “streets ahead” is perfectly normal usage for me, growing up on the Berkshire/Surrey border close to London. Not business-speak, not jargon, just a common hackneyed phrase meaning vastly superior.
    I’d say that the stress can be, and may more often be, on the “head” part with secondary stress on the “streets” part.
    “Cutting/bleeding edge” are not synonymous; they both mean “at the very vanguard of the latest developments” as opposed to simply superior.
    We might say “miles ahead” but less often.

  10. How odd. I’m certainly familiar with the phrase from my years in London. When I first heard it it struck me as a classic example of British understatement, or possibly just a contrast to American overstatement as compared to miles ahead.

  11. I didn’t say “cutting edge” was a synonym, as suggested above – but I do remember it coming into the language and replacing instances where I would have expected “streets ahead”. The inclusion of “streets” in the expression suggests distance from the competition. This is why the OED defines it as “far ahead of someone or something, far superior”. The synonym it gives is “streets better”.

    As noted in the article the first recorded instance of it is from in a Dublin publication of 1885; the second from 1898 is (ironically) a comment that Americans are “streets ahead” of the British in mechanical ingenuity. and the third, from a 1911 edition of The Times, is about Canadian flour being streets ahead of British, with “streets” in inverted commas. The last (from 2005) is from the Daily Telegraph on how Toyota profitability is “streets ahead” of General Motors’. There are no examples outside the British Isles.

    The OED follows with a definition of “(won) by a street”, originally referring to a decisive sporting victory, and although the first example it gives is from 1886 it could be that “streets ahead” was inspired by the single street expression.

  12. Thanks Ben!

    The reason I asked is that whenever a U.S. piece uses the phrase (e.g. http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-01-31/how-to-listen-for-racism-on-the-campaign-trail-jeffrey-goldberg.html ) it’s invariably picked up on fan sites as a reference to Community, rather than a NOOB.

    PS: I hadn’t realised that Americans spelt it “realized”.

  13. Quite a few Brits spell it “realized” too. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oxford_spelling

  14. David Armstrong

    The Oxford English Dictionary gives -ize first. The ending “-ise” except in about seven instances (advertise, improvise, etc.) is a bastardization from French. The Times newspaper used “-ize” until it was bought by Murdoch – who came from Australia, which almost universally uses “-ise”, though he’s an American now – and currently no British newspaper uses it. Nor does the British Government. But it’s still the academic spelling (exceptions, however, include Cambridge University) and many of the best publishers use it. The etymology says that Webster and the Americans are right in their choice (though less right in spelling analyse and paralyse with a zed).

    I get very annoyed with my students when they say, “Why are you using American spellings?” and as one of them is submitting a critical analysis of this blog as a research paper I hope she’s reading this.

  15. The Times newspaper used “-ize” until it was bought by Murdoch

    Not true, I’m afraid. The Times only went over to “-ise” about 1990 or so, around a decade after the Murdoch takeover.

  16. @terrycollmannt:

    So his claim was true, if a little misleading.

  17. David Armstrong

    Thanks for the correction. Was there any special reason, or can I still blame the Dirty Digger and his populist ethics?

    Fowler in his Modern English Usage praises The Times for its spellings – such as jewelry instead of jewellery – but I doubt if he’d praise it now with all its “safe” choices.

    • But jewellery has etymology on its side, does it not? Just as the stock-in-trade of a stationer is stationery, of an ironmonger is ironmongery, of a haberdasher is haberdashery, so the stock-in-trade of a jeweller is jewellery. One might argue for spelling words as they are pronounced, but that opens the awkward question “as they are pronounced by who(m)?”

      • David Armstrong

        Sorry about the late reply to this – I did have a long think about it! You are of course right and Fowler (and those damn’ Yankees) wrong.

  18. “Was there any special reason, or can I still blame the Dirty Digger and his populist ethics?”

    Finally surrendering to the overwhelming usage of the rest of the British press, rather than anything Rupe insisted upon. It was particularly ridiculous to carry on with “-ize” when the Sunday Times a few hundred feet away was and always had been an “-ise” newspaper, and very annoying for people who freelanced for both papers to constantly have to try to remember which one they were working for that day and therefore whether the “-ize” or the “-ise” had it.

    The Times also used to use “connexion” until at least 1985, three or four decades later than any other British publication, after which it was finally dragged kicking and screaming into the early 19th century. They’ve just sacked their chief revise sub, a man of great erudition, so expect to see an increasing number of barbarities appearing under its name.

    • And so The Thunderer became The Whimperer. Many thanks for the inside story on this, though he’s still off my Christmas card list. I must say that I admire publications that are brave enough to have their own house style and spellings in the face of the bland homogenization of modern electronic composition – brave publications such as The New Yorker (pace Ben Yagoda). But every cloud has a silver lining, and at least The Times got rid of “connexion” and (presumably) “reflexion”, which I believe are etymologically unsound.

  19. Streets ahead is a common phrase in New Zealand which now means being more advanced, or winning. I have read that it originated in England when there were town criers, who would give the daily news, so some streets would obviously receive news sooner than others.

    • Thanks for this interesting and plausible theory, although a glance at Wikipedia shows that town criers existed in the United States, some as late as the Twentieth Century, so it’s curious if Americans have never used the expression.

  20. I’m Australian and “streets ahead” is used regularly here in advertising speak – even spoken by politicians looking to appear “dynamic”. I’m a copywriter and came here because – for reasons too boring to explain – I was looking for “street-related” cliches (“new kid on the block” etc.) I had no idea it wasn’t in usage in the US, and I live there half the year. What the etymology of it is, however, I have no idea.

  21. A whole government programme called Streets Ahead!
    http://www.vichealth.vic.gov.au/streetsahead

  22. David Armstrong

    I remember many years ago a representative of the American Embassy in London being asked by the Queen about redecoration there, and being told that the embassy was having “refurbishment”. The British press went to town making fun of such a quaint and pompous expression still in use in America. And guess what? It gradually caught on, and now you see and hear it all the time in these isles. I’m just wondering if the effect of the T.V. mockery (and perhaps this blog) might be the universal acceptance of “streets ahead” in the U.S.

  23. “Streets ahead” is very common here in Oz (or should I say “Aus”?) , typically applied to objects or companies if I recall : “my new washing machine is streets ahead of the old one”, “Sony tvs are streets ahead of LG’s”.

  24. With no evidence, I have always assumed that this common (in my experience) expression came from the card game ‘cribbage’, or ‘crib’, in which points are scored for plays and hands, and recorded by moving pegs on a ‘crib board’, which has two parallel rows of 30 holes (six sets of five) for each of the two players. A game consists of going up one ‘street’ of 30 holes and down the next, and then again, and lastly into a final hole offset to the side, with the winner being the first to score 121 points. So ‘streets ahead’ means ‘leading by a lot of points’ and probably uncatchable. Folk etymology, I know, but to my mind MILES better than the town crier version. (I am a 68-year-old Londoner who hasn’t played crib for forty years; I don’t imagine many people play crib nowadays.)

  25. Great post – Streets Ahead is also the name of the new single by the Canadian band The Tragically Hip. If the Community reference didn’t make the expression big here, it should become more mainstream soon!

  26. Its a british phrase related to town criers of olden days, its well known, in Cornwall at least, but then we’re slightly more caughtup with old twang and phrases.. more dreckly..

  27. Here in London, where I’ve lived all my life, it’s a phrase I’ve never really given much thought to until now. I am very familiar with it, and in my experience is used in everyday speech, and the written word quite regularly and is not restricted to sales or marketing “talk”.

    It is regularly used by sport commentators, especially technical sports such as Formula 1, where they might say something along the lines of: “in terms of aerodynamics, McLaren are streets ahead of Ferrari”.

    In my experience, the emphasis is almost always on “streets” rather than “ahead”.

    The explanation of the town crier origin is interesting and makes sense, but I suppose that sounding plausible doesn’t mean it’s accurate of course.

  28. Would also attest that streets ahead IS common in the UK but is something of a cliche and indeed the sort of thing a sitcom marketing or PR person would tend to overuse,

    Never even occurred to me that the derivation could be anything other than a reference to some imaginary race through a town.

  29. I was very surprised to read on here that most of the posters are not familiar with the term. I’m 60 years-old and I can recall it being a regularly used term throughout my life in Australia. It always means “way ahead of the opposition” so it is used in sporting terms, technology terms, research terms. Very common in Australia as far as I’m concerned. I’ve also heard the term “streeted” used in sporting terms meaning won easily.

  30. ‘Streets ahead’ was said by Alice in the 1992 British comedy series Mulberry – the series was popular on PBS, so perhaps that is one way it was introduced to American audiences

  31. This is odd in that I was aware of the figure of speech. It’s a Britishism that somehow crept into my American upbringing.

    But the figure of speech was always used to indicate that one thing was “streets ahead OF” something else.

    Whereas the Community version, which has taken root, is not a comparison at all. “Ahead” is a noun in the Community formation of the phrase rather than an adjective.

    So, for example, “That car is totally streets ahead.” Not “That car is streets ahead of other cars.” More “Streets ahead, man” as comparable to “Cool, dude” or “Brilliant, mate.”

    In that regard, the Community formation is different. I wasn’t aware that “streets ahead” wasn’t in use in the US as an American as I’ve certainly used it. It strikes me as cliched and a bit stuffy/posh like referring to second cousins as “once removed.” But as a fan of Community, I always took Pierce’s use as a new formation of the term.

    In my mind, it would be comparable to this: In the US, we call them advertisements. In the UK, advert is more common. (Again, advert was a term I somehow picked up growing up.) But imagine a TV show started using “to advert” as the verb form of “advertisement.” “I’m going to advert an advertisement!” Is that a legitimate Britishism or a new figure of speech then?

  32. Pingback: Good On Us | Not One-Off Britishisms

  33. I just heard “streets ahead’ used on BBC World. Somehow I doubt they were referencing Community.

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