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Mean street, mean city?

中国日报网 2014-02-21 10:52


Reader question:

Please explain “mean street”, “mean city” in this sentence: “On a mean street in a mean city, a thief tries to snatch an old woman’s bag.”

My comments:

This reads like a scene straight from Oliver Twist, a novel by Charles Dickens.

On a mean street in a mean city live the poor people. Crimes may be rife there, too.

Anyways, as an adjective, “a mean street in a mean city” means a poor street in a poverty stricken city. The question is, why?

I’m not so sure, but the partial root of the word “mean” as an adjective is from Middle English mene, meaning common, shared, and from Latin medianus, or median, meaning middle, according to Merriam-Webster.com.

Perhaps from these clues one can make sense of “mean” as an adjective in “mean street”. It offers connotations of being common and average, in the middle. If you have what is known as the “mean income”, for instance, you make the average income of your city or country. The “golden mean” means the golden middle way, never going to extremes.

If mean income means average income, how come “mean” in “mean city” means poor?

Originally mean streets and mean cities must have just been streets and cities where common folks congregate. They’re the masses in comparison with the elite, the upper classes of aristocrats and rich merchants.

The common folk may not all be poor, for sure. Some are jobless but many are member of the working class, holding jobs and leading decent lives. At least one hopes so.

However, as the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, even the average income earners now look very poor. Look at the biggest cities in the world today, where commercialism and profit making are at their fiercest and worst. If you have an average income, i.e. that you actually work for your money in the ordinary way, holding a 9 to 5 job, do you feel very rich or very poor?

More likely very poor. That’s right. That’s not right, that’s actually wrong but that’s it. There may be a lot of people like yourself, but, all of you feel very poor because of the comparison with the small number of people who are extremely rich.

Mean street means poor-people’s street. Suddenly, it all seems to make sense, doesn’t it?

Alright, here are media examples:

1. The club’s original incarnation in Manhattan is disguised as a derelict Jewish tailor’s shop and located on a mean street on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Entrance is by referral and appointment only, and the place is so publicity-shy that, if they have heard of it at all, most New Yorkers assume it’s an urban myth, or just flatly deny its existence.

“A place with rules? No, I’d have been there.” But then genuine customers - who have made it past the referral system, telephoned in advance to book a seat, found the unmarked door and negotiated the double set of velvet curtains into the railway carriage size, Jazz Age speakeasy-style interior - will deny its existence anyway. Because that is one of the first rules of admission. And while the rules are strictly enforced, the customers are, anyway, self-regulating.

- The most secret bar in London, Standard.co.UK, March 7, 2002.

2. Officials announced that a number of schools, designated “safe havens,” would be open to feed children breakfast and lunch and keep them off Chicago’s mean streets. The police superintendent spoke of strategies for avoiding a return to the summer's plague of drive-by shootings.

There’s much theorizing about why children come to school from dismal and discouraging environments. Conservatives blame a decline in moral standards and the failure of parents to live up to their responsibilities. Liberals point to endemic poverty and the lingering effects of racism and segregation.

One thing is for sure: It’s not the children’s fault.

- Teachers’ lesson sometimes show up years later, ChicagoTribune.com, September 18, 2012.

3. Sharon-Lee White is a skid-row Santa.

Each year, the secret Santa lovingly wraps up a rather unorthodox care package for residents of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

Only this year, it’s not such a secret.

“I think it’s better if you do good things and don’t tell people about it,” White said somewhat reluctantly at Pub 340, where she serves as general manager.

“Then I thought it might be good for the people who need help.”

White is publicity-shy, so it was up to daughter Amy Christian to spread the word.

“I was reading something in The Province, and I thought, ‘They should write something about Mom,’” said Amy.

“There are a lot of people who don’t get anything for Christmas. This is not about recognition or accolades, it’s about helping other people.”

White has a deep understanding of how tough it is in the skids. When her marriage ended, she found herself on the hardscrabble streets, trying to make ends meet.

“I used to live in Lynn Valley, and I’d drive right by here every day. If you’d have told me I’d be living down here one day, I’d say, ‘You’re out of your mind.’”

Fifteen years of gritty living behind her now, White considers the curse of life on the streets to be a blessing.

“Sometimes I say, ‘God, what am I doing here?’ I must have done something really bad in my past life. But I’ve learned so much about life and other people – it’s turned out to be a blessing.”

- Life on mean streets a ‘blessing,’ says secret Santa, Canada.com, November 21, 2012.




About the author:

Zhang Xin is Trainer at chinadaily.com.cn. He has been with China Daily since 1988, when he graduated from Beijing Foreign Studies University. Write him at: zhangxin@chinadaily.com.cn, or raise a question for potential use in a future column.



Hat in the ring?

Right of way?

Never really cut out for life in the battlefield?

Smell the coffee?

Stared him in the face?


(作者张欣 中国日报网英语点津 编辑:陈丹妮)



Cheating death?


Stared him in the face?


Smell the coffee?


Right of way?


Hat in the ring?

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