In a Word for Third, a Shovelful of Indignity

This week has been an educational one in New York City.

One lesson, in particular, will linger — long after the last molecule of grayed, salted melt gurgles down a storm drain, long even after the patina on Michael R. Bloomberg’s statue has been reburnished by some future feat of municipal derring-do.

Millions of New Yorkers who thought they lived on perfectly nice blocks in decent neighborhoods have learned that their streets are, in fact… tertiary.

A new word entered the Big Apple lexicon this week, and it’s not a happy one.

Tertiary, despite managing to simultaneously sound like both euphemistic bureaucratese and ripping flesh, is a Latinate word that means, simply, third. In a classification system with only three levels, tertiary, alas, means last.

And in New York City, tertiary means it takes three days for the city to plow your street.

That’s not its literal meaning, of course. In plowman’s parlance, tertiary streets are the ones that feed into (and get plowed after) secondary streets, which are streets that feed into (and get plowed after) arterial streets, also known as thoroughfares and main drags.

But the effect is undeniable: New Yorkers ended up feeling like third-class residents of a third-rate burg, left to clutch their bronze medals in the race for basic city services.

Or as one City Room commenter, Peter Haskett, put it Wednesday, “Most of the streets in Briarwood, Queens, must be as ‘tertiary’ as syphilis as far as City Hall is concerned, because nobody will touch them.”

The tertiary stage of syphilis, for those of you who haven’t recently cracked a medical textbook (or consulted inferior tertiary sources like encyclopedias), tends to involve big gummy lumps on the face, the sensation of bugs crawling on the skin, intense ocular pain, dementia and death.

Father: “What kind of part did you get in the school play, son?” (Boy hangs head.) “Tertiary.”

But cheer up, third-stringers. Tertiary isn’t always bad. The tertiary period, which ran for a few million decades beginning in 65 million B.C., saw the rise of mammals, some of whom have received the benefits of tertiary education, otherwise known as college. If you fall seriously ill, you would do well to get yourself to a tertiary care facility, a clinic or hospital involving specialized medical treatment.

In the ecological world, tertiary consumers are at or near the top of the food chain — they eat the carnivores (secondary consumers) who eat the herbivores (primary consumers) at the bottom of the pyramid. This can be a precarious position when the lower rungs start to give way, but it’s hard to argue with a grizzly bear with a mouth full of salmon.

And those of you who blame Mr. Bloomberg for this whole mess, remember: his mayoralty is in its tertiary stage.

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