Although paths predate the arrival, a million or so years ago, of humans, only within the past hundred years has the study of paths received so much as a name. The German psychologist Kurt Lewin coined the word in the 1930s: hodology. He derived it from the Greek word hodos, which means path or way and which encompasses both pedestrian and vehicular ways.
Lewin used the word to refer to mental paths a person takes in their “life space,” a concept we’ll consider later on. The word hodology has since been adopted in other fields. In neuroscience, it is the study of the interconnection of brain cells; in philosophy, the study of interconnected ideas.
In geography and landscape design, the word hodology has been adopted more slowly to mean the study of circulation routes. J.B. Jackson seems to have prompted the adoption by using it in 1984 in Discovering the Vernacular Landscape. Jackson spelled it odology and championed its use as the study of ways, a word he thought was inclusive enough to encompass hodos’s broad meaning. More recently French landscape architects, citing Jackson, have used hodologie to mean more narrowly the study of paths, or cheminements.
Thus, hodology is the name of the field, but the search seems still open for the single best word for its object of study? The word ways, while admittedly broad, is perhaps too broad and too conceptual to encompass routes actually built of brick and mortar. The word road, for its part, falls short on several counts. The word is recent—road came into use among so many other new words in Shakespeare’s time—and it has limited meanings. It originally referred to the act of riding or a journey on horseback and now means primarily a paved way for motorized movement. It is also ordinary— “steadfastly prosaic and literal,” wrote Jackson. Its contemporary meaning of an intentionally designed, paved way led Jackson to worry that a study devoted merely to roads would “imply that the landscape student should be interested [only] in the work of the engineer and matters of construction, alignment, and the efficient movement of goods.”
Other words suffer kindred shortcomings. The word street (and other “str” words like strada in Italian and Strasse in German) arise from the Latin sternere, to stretch out, lay down, or make smooth, and its feminine past participle—a strata via, being a wide, paved way. Similarly, route derives from the Latin via rupta, that which breaks the landscape in crossing it.
By contrast, trail evolved from trahere, to draw or drag along a surface, and “track” from the mark made by such dragging.
A walk is both a verb and a noun: an action, moving forward on foot; and a place for walking, usually designed, often paved, outdoors or along the edge of a building. In seventeenth-century England, a walk meant a path wide enough for two people to walk abreast—a route for conversation or courtship. Walks, walkways, and sidewalks are clearly less than the entire field we are discussing.
Path fits with trail and walk, being, as the Oxford English Dictionary states, “a way beaten or trodden by the feet of men or beasts.” Its exact origins are uncertain but are undoubtedly Anglo-Saxon, dating from before 1100.
Path retains the sense of action and process, intimacy and warmth of a solitary person wending their way on foot across the earth. Path is less factual, but more broadly meaningful than its cousin, footpath. We are interested in the nature of paths to better be able to design them, a goal nicely captured by the compound pathmaking.
And the word path, although earthy, rises above the pedestrian to match Jackson’s preferred hodological word, way, in embracing loftier, more expansive ideas. As the Oxford dictionary notes, paths can also refer to “courses of action, lines of conduct, ways of behavior,” as in paths of thought, life, and glory.