Both German Straße as well as English street go back to Late Latin strata (from Latin sternere, to cover, strew, I think). The superficially similar English strait, meaning strict or narrow, however, ultimately originates from Latin strictus (from stringere) by some derivation through Old French that is not entirely clear but also not terribly important to me. Romance cognates of strait abound, in any case.

Now, sensibly, the English word for a narrow, strict (one might say, strait) waterway connecting two larger bodies of water is strait, as in Strait of Gibraltar. Just as sensibly, a German word for the same thing is Meerenge, literally a sea strait.

Much less sensibly, the Strait of Gibraltar (Bonifacio, Malakka, you name it) in German is not called Meerenge von Gibraltar or even Gibraltarenge, but instead Straße von Gibraltar.

I find this odd, in particular considering the lack of a German word Meer(es)straße. This leads me to suspect that the appearence of Straße in the above uses is the product of an obvious mistranslation of strait. I'm using the English word strait here, but of course, there is a host of cognates in Romance languages that are perhaps much more likely to be the true culprits when it comes to the question of which word exactly was wrongly translated to German. This is just a detail.

On the other hand, I can see how one might be tempted to call a strait a Straße (after all, it is a path typically used by some kind of traffic), so I'm not sure just how odd to find this, and I'm wondering if it is actually a wrong translation of strait or a genuinely new term for Meerenge.

Therefore my question: Is the Straße in Straße von Gibraltar a street, or is it a bastardized strait?

Edit: All Romance languages exclusively use the respective cognate of strait when it comes to describing straits. Germanic languages, apart from English, on the other hand, use their cognate of street for straits, which always sounds close to strait. Slavic and Turk languages that do not have a word for street that is sounds just like strait do not use the analogy to a street for describing a strait, but different analogies stressing the aspect of narrowness. This supports the hypothesis of a wrong translation.

  • 1
    "Die Straße von Gibraltar" is very normal. I often read/heard it. The variant with "Meerenge" is used not often in my experience.
    – äüö
    Commented Mar 13, 2019 at 7:36
  • 3
    "... in German is not called Meerenge von Gibraltar ..." - sorry, but that is not true. It is rarely used, but it is. For Gibraltar as well as for other "Meerengen".
    – IQV
    Commented Mar 13, 2019 at 7:37
  • 1
    @IQV Your (I suppose) downvote is nonsensical. The question is about the origin of the prevalent (as you admit yourself) form using Straße; of course you can call a Meerenge that is located near Gibraltar the Meerenge von Gibraltar, but that's entirely besides the point. Commented Mar 13, 2019 at 7:42
  • 1
    Your assumption is wrong. And I admit nothing myself.
    – IQV
    Commented Mar 13, 2019 at 7:56
  • 5
    Think of Milchstraße - No connection to an English "strait", not plastered with stones, yet "Straße"
    – tofro
    Commented Mar 13, 2019 at 8:46

3 Answers 3


After some of your comments, I guess I understand know, what you are after.

Grimm has a separate entry for Straße in the meaning of strait.

It says

meerenge. herkunft. lehnwort aus engl. strait, pl. straits 'meerenge', zu strait 'eng'; dieses aus altfrz. estreit (frz. étroit), das lat. strictus entspricht; vgl. Kretschmer wortgeogr. 494; Torp nynorsk et. ordb. 732. die anwendung des wortes gleicht dem engl. völlig: the straits of Gibraltar (seit dem 15. jh.) als die strasze von Gibraltar; Behring strait als Behringstrasze. engl. strait, straits wurde in fälschlicher lehnübersetzung als strasze, nd. strat übernommen, wahrscheinlich unter verwechslung von engl. strait mit engl. street 'strasze'. heutiges sprachgefühl verbindet strasze 'meerenge' mit bedeutungen von 1strasze als 'weg auf dem wasser' (s. o. sp. 902, B 4 d) und 'schmaler durchlasz'

  • < sup >1< /sup > (without the spaces).
    – David Vogt
    Commented Mar 13, 2019 at 9:17
  • @DavidVogt Thank you!
    – Arsak
    Commented Mar 13, 2019 at 9:21
  • Oh! Incredible. Grimm surprises me again and again. Thank you. Commented Mar 13, 2019 at 9:23
  • @CorneliusBrand Indeed :) You might want to read the full entry. I found it quite interesting.
    – Arsak
    Commented Mar 13, 2019 at 9:28

I guess the Wiki- entries about Wasserstraße and Seeweg might help you. If I may quote (bold font by me):

Unter einer Wasserstraße versteht man schiffbare Flüsse und Kanäle. Meerengen mit dem Attribut "Straße" sind Seestraßen.

So, naming certain Meerengen as Straße von ... is rather common in German. Thus, the name Straße von Gibraltar is no mistranslation. Further examples are Straße von Malakka/ Messina/ Kertsch/ Dover/ Hormus/ Tiran/ Sizilien ... .

Terms like Wasserstraße, Seestraße or Seeweg are formed in analogy to streets at land, since good sailors don't and didn't travel randomly across the oceans, but used defined routes to optimise for currents, wind and ice conditions, or food and water supply, for example.

  • Thanks for pointing that out! Judging from a quick corpus search, Straße von ... is a little older than Seestraße or Wasserstraße, and the latter two seem to appear mostly in juridical diction. In particular, Straße von Gibraltar appears earlier as Seestraße. Commented Mar 13, 2019 at 7:28
  • 2
    @CorneliusBrand: you find this need to name a path safe to travel also in aviation: there you have Luftkorridor where Korridor is known as connection between rooms in a house - which fits figurativly to connections between airports as rooms. Or in landscape you have a Korridor for animals to switch habitats. These paths are just not called Straße. Commented Mar 13, 2019 at 8:46

I guess that much of the confusion comes from the development in meaning Straße has made in the meantime, becoming more specialized to mainly represent asphalted ways, appropriate for cars or even reserved for them.

I see no specific reason to assume a mistranslation, since Grimm already provides among dozens of other examples:

c) verbindungen im sinne von 'durchlasz gewähren, schaffen, sperren', ausgehend von dem sperren der straszen (o. A 1 b), im mhd. noch eng an die eigentliche vorstellung angelehnt:

ich füer sô kreftigez her ...  
unt jene die si besâzen
müesen rûmen mir die strâzen
Wolfram von Eschenbach Parzival 768, 4;

Straße is entirely appropriate if one wants to emphasize the connection aspect as opposed to the narrowness, which is better represented by Meerenge, which is also used, even if less frequently.

And finally, this is not restricted to Gibraltar, but also applies to Maghellanstraße, Straße von Malakka and many others, with the notable exception of the Northwest-Passage, the sea route through the Arctic Ocean. Since the latter was much searched for but only recently found in the age of global warming, so the connection aspect was missing for centuries, this seems to fit.

  • The meaning of Straße has always been a kind of surfaced road. The latin origin of Straße, via strata, translates to plastered (strewn with stone) way, as far as I can gather. I also do not understand how the existence of other metaphoric uses of Straße helps to answer the question: The very existence of these uses is what makes the question non-trivial. I'm looking for a way to discern the possible metaphorical use of the possible mistranslation. A reason to assume a mistranslation is pointed out both in the edit of my question and in the original question (lack of Meerstraße). Commented Mar 13, 2019 at 8:36

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.