Curbs and Sidewalks

By Maeve Maddox

Rod poses the question:

In Spanish the words curb and sidewalk are interchangeable. Is it the same in English?  

In U.S. English, the word sidewalk refers to a paved footpath alongside a street or a road. The sidewalk is usually raised above the level of the road. The curb is a stone or concrete edging between the road and the sidewalk.

In British usage, curb is spelled kerb. What Americans call a sidewalk, British speakers call the pavement.

Merchants that Americans call “street vendors” or “sidewalk vendors” are called “kerb-merchants” or “kerb-vendors” by British speakers.

Curious about the alleged lack of distinction between sidewalk and curb in Spanish, I looked the words up in my New World Spanish Dictionary and found the following:

acera: sidewalk; Mexican banqueta
encintado: curb (of a sidewalk)
bordillo:curb
borde de acera: curb

Comments from Spanish speakers welcome.

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36 Responses to “Curbs and Sidewalks”

  • Rosbif

    > Merchants that Americans call “street vendors” or
    > “sidewalk vendors” are called “kerb-merchants” or
    > “kerb-vendors” by British speakers.

    That’s news to this British speaker! Indeed you’ll find very few web hits for either of those terms. “Street seller” is by far the most common term in UK usage.

  • Cecily

    “Kerb-merchants” or “kerb-vendors” are phrases that I have never seen or heard, and I was born and educated in England and have never lived anywhere else.

    I can’t think of a single commonly used term, but “hawkers”, “street traders” and “street sellers” would be contenders.

    For us, “kerb” refers specifically to the edge of the pavement (sidewalk), so one might possibly talk about “pavement stalls”, but it would be odd to use “kerb” in that way.

    “Merchant” is a rather archaic and slightly grand word, certainly not to be used for street traders. Its other usage is in a slightly derogatory way, e.g. when talking about a “sleaze merchant” or “speed merchant”.

    “Vendor” is widely known to mean “seller”, but is rarely used colloquially, with the exception of when one buys a house.

    The differences between AmE and BrE are not always as simple as appearances suggest. 😉

  • Mark Westwood

    I’m with Cecily on this. I’m a native speaker of British English and I’ve never heard the terms ‘kerb-merchant’ or ‘kerb-vendor’ in 50+ years. If I did now I’d think it was someone who sells kerbs.

  • ApK

    >>The curb is a stone or concrete edging between the road and the sidewalk.<<

    Curbs form a drainage channel along the edge of the street. The channel itself is the 'gutter."
    Just to avoid confusion I would point out that there can be a curb without there being a sidewalk.
    In my neighborhood, for example, our lawns end in a small curb down to the street, but there is no walking path. In other neighborhoods, while there is a sidewalk, it it separated from the curb by a swath of grass,

    On another note, I presume the expression "curb your dog," meaning to clean up your dog's droppings, refers to the fact that the dog is usually walked along the edge of the street near the curb? Is this expression used in England?

  • ApK

    Oh, one more comment on ‘curb’ in the US. Since the curb is a small straight wall only a few inches high and generally not rounded or sloping anywhere, when a subject involves only a small , short period of learning before it can be understood, we often say it has a “learning curb” as a play on the phrase “learning curve.”

  • Cecily

    @ApK: In England, “curb your dog” is an unfamiliar phrase and would be nothing to do with dogs walking along the curb, partly because we call that edge “kerb” and partly because “curb” is a noun in both AmE and BrE meaning to restrain, limit or reduce, e.g. “curbs on government spending”.

  • Cecily

    @ApK: Are you sure “learning curb” is a play on words, rather than just a mistake of the sort often discussed here?

  • Cecily

    Maeve: Three out of three (so far) Brits have never heard the phrases you cite as typical of BrE, so please tell us, where do you get your information?

    google.co.uk finds only 142 hits for “kerb merchant”, which ought to be a clue to its rarity.

  • Maeve

    I don’t recall having heard those terms either, but since my post was on the short side, I decided to include these terms which I assumed were common since I found this in the OED:

    Comb., as kerb-merchant, -vendor, one who sells his wares on or beside the street-kerb; kerb-edge, -side; kerb market, stocks (see on the kerb in 2a and CURB n. 15); kerb crawling vbl. n. = gutter crawling vbl. n. (GUTTER n.1 8); also as ppl. a.; also kerb-crawl v. intr. [as a back-formation]; kerb-crawler; kerb drill, the exercise of standing on the kerb and looking right, then left, then right again before crossing the road; kerb service, see curb service (CURB n. 15); kerb weight (see quot. 1967).

  • Cecily

    @Maeve: Intriguing. If you can’t trust the OED on matters of BrE, who can you trust? LOL

  • Mercedes

    In River Plate Spanish, sidewalk or pavement is translated as “vereda”, and curb or kerb is “cordón de la vereda”, that’s what we call it down here.

    Nevertheless, I looked the words up in the “Diccionario Oxford Pocket, Edición Rioplatense” so as to be sure it was a sanctioned use.

  • Mercedes

    I do not agree with Rod’s statement, in Spanish curb and sidewalk are definitely not interchangeable. They refer to different parts.

    The “vereda” or “acera” is the surface itself on which pedestrians walk, and the “cordón” or “bordillo” is the edge or border (bordillo means literally “small border”) of the same. Further, the materials with which they are made are different.

  • ApK

    Cecily, I wouldn’t have guessed that you have “kerb” for a noun and “curb” for the verb (I assume you meant verb….).
    I always assumed that they were the same word, and that ‘curbing spending’ meant to stop spending in the same way that a ‘curb’ stops the blacktop of the road or the runoff of water.

    As for “learning curb,” yes, over many years, I’ve heard many trainers and sales engineers, including myself, say something to the effect of “There’s no difficult learning curve with this system, it’s more like a learning curb: a small easy step and you’re on your way.”

  • Mercedes

    In my first comment I forgot to add that I also looked the words up in the Diccionario de la Real Academia (Royal Spanish Academy) and in María Moliner, and in both they appear as River Plate versions of “acera” and “bordillo”.

  • Cecily

    ApL: Sorry, I meant “curb” is a noun and verb in BrE (meaning restraint/restrain etc), whereas “kerb” is only a noun, and only a very specific one. So we might curb spending on our kerbs!

  • Cecily

    ApK (sorry)

  • Viv

    In Spanish curb and sidewalk are not interchangeable. I am a native speaker and we call the sidewalk acera or in a informal usage vereda which means path. For the curb we use bordillo which means curb or borde which means edge.

  • Joseph Gamero

    “Curb”and “sidewalk” (acera y bordillo) are never interchangeable in Spanish!

  • Mariant

    I’m Spanish and there are two different words : ‘acera’ for pavement or sidewalk and ‘bordillo’ for kerb and they are not interchangeable.

  • Kathryn

    “Curb” is also both a noun and a verb in American English, but we don’t use the spelling “kerb,” which my deskside Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language, College Edition (1964) firmly declares to be the “British spelling.”

  • Cygnifier

    How interesting — and potentially dangerous — to have the word “pavement” used in such different ways. In the US, to walk on the “pavement” would mean walking out in the street itself (which is paved, usually in asphalt {macadam}) and thus rather than walking in safety (as on a sidewalk) one would be in constant danger of being run over. There are certain kinds of bricks sold in the U.S. as “pavers,” specifically the kind that originally was used to pave a street or a sidewalks, a use which supports the development of pavement as used on either side of the Atlantic. “Pound the pavement” doesn’t seem to offer additional insight either as it seems to be generally defined as related to streets, although an occasional definition includes sidewalk.

    @Apk — perhaps “learning curb” is a colloquial or regional phrase? I’ve live throughout the Southern Atlantic , Midwest, and Upper Plains states and have never heard this interesting play on words.

  • Rod

    Maeve
    Thanks for your post now It’s clear to me; In Spanish we make too many mistakes when talking and we just don’t care, I wish we had a blog or a site with people corncerned about language like you do

  • ApK

    Cyg,
    Certainly colloquial, perhaps peculiar to the vernacular of the IT industry. I don’t think it’s regional, but I never paid attention to where I was when I heard it. 🙂

  • Cygnifier

    @Apk –Thanks! This makes so much sense for IT, especially as it is an area where trainers are often faced with trainees who are terrified about a “learning curve” which may be beyond them. Any metaphor that might help reduce fear would be an asset.

  • Nelida K.

    Hi Maeve,

    Thank you for requesting comments from Spanish native speakers, and here’s my two cents:

    I disagree with Rod about interchangeability of “curb” and “sidewalk” in Spanish, and am fully in agreement with Mercedes on this (I strongly suspect she might be a translator colleague I know). “Curb” is “cordón” and “sidewalk” is “vereda” (S.Cone LatAm), or “acera” for other varieties of Spanish).

  • gofram

    It’s false that in spanish curb and sidewalk are interchangeable. In Venezuela, sidewalk is “acera” and curb is “borde” or “orilla.” In some constructions “orilla” may mean gutter.

  • Rod

    In colloquial Spanish curb is banqueta and sidewalk acera ; “camina por la banqueta” or walk by the sidewalk is a recommendation so you don’t get run over banqueta is curb that doesn’t mean that you’re supposed to walk by the edge. and at least in México they are interchangeable even though it’s wrong

  • ApK

    I don’t speak Spanish at all, but looking it up on line, “banqueta” translates as “sidewalk” or “stool or low bench”

    I see no mention of it specifically as “curb,”, HOWEVER, as the entire curb/sidewalk construction could be seen essentially as a “low bench” of concrete running along side the road, and if you were to “sit on the curb”, you would certainly be sitting on a low bench the edge of which is the curb and the top of which is the sidewalk, I can certainly see this being understood in both senses.

  • Ed Fernandez

    As a native speaker of Spanish, I also disagree with the statement that the terms for ‘curb’ and ‘pavement’ are interchangeable in Spanish. ‘Bordillo’ (curb, kerb) is the edge of the ‘acera’ (pavement) and they cannot be used to refer to the same area. Technically you could have an ‘acera’ without a ‘bordillo’, for instance if the pavement is not made risen above its surroundings. I would ask Rod how he got the impression the two terms were synonyms.
    Regards – Ed

  • hz

    Just to add another term, Australians (who predominantly speak British English) use the term ‘footpath’, however we would understand should someone refer to it as the sidewalk or pavement.

  • Denisse

    It is interesting to find out that you can learn Spanish, which is my first language, in an English-writing tips website. Thank you a lot I had no idea that these words existed in Spanish hehehe

  • Kathryn

    Interesting, hz. In America, at least, “footpath” would generally be used to refer to a walkway that does NOT run parallel to a street–for example, on many college campuses there are footpaths running from one building to another across broad swathes of lawn.

  • codebeard

    Kathryn, usually we (Australians) would just call that a “path” if it were not alongside a road.

  • Chris

    Being a Brit who has lived in the US for the past 15 years, I’m usually carefully to learn the differences and avoid ambiguities between our languages. It has become a source of amusement to my girlfriend whenever I talk about the ‘carriageway’ as the surface upon which the vehicles are driving (hence, in England, some four-lane highways are known as dual carriageways – two in each direction).

    Pavement in the States refers to the durable bituminous surface of the ‘carriageway’, whereas it is the pedestrian’s walking surface in UK, which is bound by a kerb.

    Kerb crawling is the act of soliciting ‘ladies of the night’ from one’s motor vehicle.

  • Robert Gustafson

    “A Person is Not a ‘They.’

    Someone receives a phone call. After the conversation you ask,”So, what did they want?
    Response>> “They just wanted me to try a new phone sevice.”
    (( Sometimes (not often) you really can’t tell if it was a HE or a SHE.))

    So, what did that person want? Grammatically correct, but nobody use that phrase.

    So, what did he or she want? VERY AWKWARD.

    I think THEY replaces (( [He or she] ))

    Of course, that is what everyone means when they use THEY.

    They = HE or SHE

    Zappit Electric just raised its rates. (Not “their rates”)
    This does not sound awkward. BUT …>>

    Why not ‘they’ or ‘their’ if you take it to mean the people
    who work at Zappit Electric?

    Just like in sports if you think of the team — as all of the players on the team.

    Example: The Chicago Bulls are playing their best basketball ever this month. OR
    The Utah Jazz are playing their best baketball ever this month.

    NOT The ‘Chicago Bulls’ is playing its best basketball ever this month.

    BUT>>>

    The ‘Utah Jazz’ is playing its best basketball ever this month.
    In this example ‘is playing’ sounds okay and is grammatically correct.

    Collectively the team is one entity like Zappit Electric.

    Jazz is my favorite kind of music.

  • peugeot 1.1

    Lovely piece, many thanks for making the effort to throw it up

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