There's been a lot of talk about "Main Street" in political speeches and news articles lately. It's a metonym—a word that represents an associated concept, as "White House" represents "the presidency"— that's usually used in opposition to another metonym, Wall Street.
Used this way, I suppose "Main Street" stands in for "just plain folks" or "mom-and-pop stores," or that creepily voguish concept, "small-town values." But I can't do any local research, because there's no Main Street in Oakland, where I live. (We do have a Broadway and, naturally, a Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.) Berkeley's main street is Telegraph Avenue. San Francisco's Main Street is on the far fringe of the Financial District and much less representative of that city than, say, Market Street or Castro Street. Los Angeles, where I grew up, has a Main Street that for years has pretty much been synonomous with Skid Row. (Digression: The first Skid Row was Seattle's Skid Road, a dirt path along which logs were skidded to the sawmill.) But Los Angeles's symbolic main street is Hollywood Boulevard, and many of its actual main thoroughfares—as well as its historic main street—have Spanish names: La Brea, La Cienega, Ventura, Sepulveda, Olvera.
The Main Street that evokes the most associations for me is the one in Sinclair Lewis's 1920 novel by that name. There, Main Street stands for everything parochial, ignorant, and self-satisfied about small-town America. But I'm guessing that's not what all those politicians and editorial writers are thinking about.
But what do they mean? Linguist Eric Baković has been thinking about Main Street as buzzword, and he's a little annoyed. "I don't live on Main Street," he writes in Language Log:
It's not that I don't understand the metonym (and why it might have once sounded like the perfect phrase to oppose "Wall Street" with), I just don't find it very effective — that, or the relative novelty of it (for me) wore off very, very quickly and now it just sounds cliché and, quite frankly, devoid of content.
Be sure to read the comments on the post, which broaden the discussion to street metonyms in general (Madison Avenue = advertising; London's Fleet Street = newspaper publishing) and to nuances I, for one, hadn't considered. For example, John Baker observes:
In addition to its small town/retail implications, "Main Street" today is often used to refer to the real economy and operating companies, as opposed to Wall Street, which refers to the virtual economy and financial intermediaries. "Main Street" and "Wall Street" are probably more meaningful to most people than "real economy" and "virtual economy." "Main Street" does not mean "your street," so Bush was making a different (and smarter) reference with those words.
Update, Oct. 2: Language Log has published a couple of follow-ups to its original "Main Street" post. This one further explores what House Speaker Nancy Pelosi meant by "Main Street and everyday Americans." And this one, which includes a William Hamilton cartoon for the New Yorker, traces the history of the metonymic uses of "Wall Street" and "Main Street."
P.S. For another view of Main Street—and some distraction from the political and financial news— rent State and Main, about what happens to a small Vermont town when a movie crew decides to shoot there. (Hint: those townfolk are a whole lot more streetwise, Main- and other-, than the movie people counted on.) The movie, which appeared and disappeared too quickly in early 2001, was written and directed by David Mamet, master of cynical dialogue; the dream cast includes Alec Baldwin, Sarah Jessica Parker, Rebbeca Pidgeon (Mamet's wife), Philip Seymour Hoffman, William H. Macy, Ricky Jay, Julia Stiles, and Patti LuPone.