April 03, 2005

Mall semantics

Caught on the "international male" page (about shopping opportunities for gay men, all over the world) in the March 2005 issue of Instinct, p. 38:

Another recent addition to L.A. is the Grove, an outdoor mall, which has your basics (Banana Republic) as well as department stores and more boutiquey shops.

Surely "outdoor (shopping) mall" has come past my eyes thousands of times, but this was the first time I reflected on it.  Its meaning is (almost) transparent, so it's unlikely to find a place in dictionaries (and, indeed, it's not in the OED Online).  Still, it's not without some interest semantically.

This will be a little adventure in folk categorization.

First, "outdoor mall" has the form of a marked, special case: your classic (shopping) mall -- the Galleria, the Mall of America -- is indoors, under a roof.  Outdoor malls are, well, outdoors and open to the sky.

But an outdoor mall isn't just a place to shop that happens to be open to the elements.  It shares one crucial element with indoor malls: easy pedestrian access from one store to another, without interference from traffic.

So your ordinary "shopping street", like Fifth Avenue, doesn't count as a mall, because of the traffic on the avenue and the side streets.  More generally, city "shopping districts" don't count as malls.  If, however, the shopping street or district is closed to traffic, then we have a species of outdoor mall, sometimes described as an "outdoor pedestrian mall".  (I draw here from some of the 46,900 sites that Google provides for "outdoor mall".)

And your ordinary "shopping center", with clusters of stores sprinkled around a gigantic parking lot, doesn't count as a mall, because pedestrian access from one store to another is not, in general, easy.  At the San Antonio Center, a few miles south of me, it borders on the harrowing, in fact, and I don't recall anyone ever referring to the place as a "mall".  If, however, you clump all the stores together in a central core, with the parking all around it, then you have an outdoor mall.  So the Stanford Shopping Center, a mile north of me, which has this arrangement, is commonly referred to as a "mall".  In fact, the center's literature refers to it as a "mall", a "shopping mall", an "outdoor mall", and an "outdoor shopping mall".

A subtype of this sort of outdoor mall is the "shopping village", which resembles an apartment or condo complex (often on several levels), and indeed not infrequently has housing mixed in with the stores and restaurants and health clubs and barber shops and whatever.

(Note that all sorts of non-shopping establishments can be located in malls, but if there isn't a significant opportunity for shopping, it's not a mall, but merely some kind of "center".  It's like drugstores: you can sell all sorts of things in a drugstore that aren't in any way describable as "drugs", but there has to be a significant presence of things that are.)

Outdoor malls can be permanent fixtures or temporary events.  So, when the main street of Elmira (ON) is closed for the annual Maple Syrup Festival, with booths selling all sorts of things on the street, the event is described as an "outdoor mall".

A further subtlety: malls, both indoor and outdoor, are designed to foster not mere shopping, but a "shopping experience".  It's expected that visitors to the mall will window-shop, socialize in the common areas, and enter more than one establishment.  If a high percentage of visitors do business at just one establishment, you have something that is technically a mall, but not a very good example of one -- the mall equivalent of the penguin in the bird world.  Such malls are actually very common in the U.S.: this is the ubiquitous (outdoor) "strip mall", where the establishments are arrayed in a row, making access to any one of them easy from the parking area, without inviting walking from one to another (though this is possible).

Four footnotes.  (1) In addition to malls in the real world, there are virtual malls, "web malls" (53,200 raw Google web hits).  (2) The hits for "outdoor mall" take in not only uses of this sequence of words parsed as adjectival "outdoor" plus head noun "mall" (as above), but also some parsed as a noun-noun compound meaning 'mall related to the outdoors'; these are malls, real or virtual, devoted to outdoor equipment (for hiking, climbing, barbecuing, etc.) or activities.  (3) An earlier version of this posting appeared on ADS-L on 3/12/05.  (4)  Since then Geoff Nunberg has written me about lots of mall-related vocabulary from the retail business: "anchor", "pad", "big box", "destination retail", "power center".  This is fascinating stuff, but not what I was going on about above, which is (mostly) about  the categorizations that ordinary people make, and about the vocabulary that goes along with it, while Nunberg's expressions are technical terms, used  mostly by specialists.  Admittedly, the line here is by no means clear, and there's plenty of traffic across it.   But "mall" and "outdoor mall" seem to be pretty clearly on the folk side of the line.

And now (4/3/05) come reports of variability in the reference of "mall", in particular uses for any street closed to traffic.  So, from Manhattanite John Cowan:

... the prototypical meaning of "mall" for me is "street closed to powered vehicular traffic".  The other, suburban, meaning is one I recognize and use in context, but out of context it's the above meaning that comes to mind first.

And Danielle McCredden reports from Australia:

... in Melbourne, we have Bourke Street mall, a section of Bourke street in the central business district which does not permit vehicular traffic (with the exception of trams).   Similarly in Adelaide, the Rundle Mall is nothing more than a section of street in the city which is paved and doesn't permit cars.   So "mall" for us describes the outdoor plan of the place but not necessarily the shops.

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at April 3, 2005 08:42 PM