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I’m looking for a word or a phrase for describing this kind of road which usually is constructed in the mountain areas, but not only:

enter image description here
image a representative sample from Google images, query = transfagarasan

In my language we call this serpentine a word used as a noun (not adjective) to describe its shape.

If I wanted to write an article about this road, a road constructed in the mountains provided with many turns and angles like in the above link, which word would be more appropriate to use?

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    Road names differ quite a bit between English speaking countries - do you have a particular audience in mind? – Dan Jan 12 '15 at 10:16
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    @LucianSava That's kind of the problem. The top rated answer doesn't really work in England - I've never heard anyone refer to "serpentine" or "switchback", although people could probably work it out. – Dan Jan 12 '15 at 10:26
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    @Dan Is there a name that is commonly used for this type of road in BrE? Switchback is very common in AmE for hiking trails and roads that wind back and forth on themselves to make ascent/descent easier. I can find switchback used on a number of hiking sites in the UK, but not for roads. – Jason Patterson Jan 13 '15 at 0:10
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    The road in the picture is described with these words on Wikipedia: "The most spectacular route is from the North to South. It is a winding road, dotted with steep hairpin turns, long S-curves, and sharp descents." Winding road search on Google images. – mins Jan 13 '15 at 7:05
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    @mins - Funny, though, how the images for winding road have much gentler curves that the images for serpentine road. As your Wikipedia quote suggests, the term winding road doesn't say enough in and of itself. – J.R. Jan 13 '15 at 9:20

11 Answers 11

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Preface ADDED 14 Jan/Jan 14, 00:11 GMT/UTC: This answer, as the OP Lucian Sava is well aware, has been written from an AmE perspective. Actually, it is written from the perspective of the variety of AmE that I speak. I think Lucian gets by now that English usage is not universal, as I had already indicted in my anwer. Let the conversation continue, by all means!


Serpentine is fine, but in English I am pretty sure we would use it as an adjective describing the road. Such a road is also called, in familiar terms, a curvy mountain road. More technically, it is any road that contains many switchbacks or hairpin curves

Switchback can refer to entirety of such a road. But this may not reflect universal usage.

I think serpentine (adjective) would be the more universally recognized word.

You can do an image search for both "switchback road" and "serpentine road" and get many of the same images.

Thus saith the snake:

enter image description here

enter image description here

enter image description here

  • Thank you very much. Hairpin, I knew it from formula 1 but I didn’t make the connection.+1 – Lucian Sava Jan 12 '15 at 8:45
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    "Switchback" specifically connotes a mountain road by analogy to hiking trails, whereas (at least to me, a native speaker from the northeast USA) "serpentine" connotes "twisting" more generally -- that is, "serpent-like" or "snake-like" – shadowtalker Jan 12 '15 at 9:44
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    We bowled along a road that curved its spine / Superbly sinuous and serpentine .. – CowperKettle Jan 12 '15 at 10:07
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    @CopperKettle poetic, but not colloquial – shadowtalker Jan 12 '15 at 17:54
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    Just for the sake of completeness: serpens is latin and means snake. – Dennis Jan 13 '15 at 14:31
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Suitable words might be:

winding or twisting

You could check the Thesaurus for more options.

These are very general adjectives and don't just apply to mountain passes (a pass is a road that crosses a mountain, but it does not have to be winding). Note that there is a pass over the Pennines called Snake Pass, but that is its name.

You could use Serpentine but that is rather poetic sounding.

The type of turn that loops back on itself is known as a hairpin turn.

  • Hi. Welcome. I thought of winding but an image search for "winding road" returns quite different images than a search for "switchback road" or "serpentine road." – user6951 Jan 12 '15 at 10:00
  • I thought of switchback but when I Googled it and looked at the associated articles, there was a suggestion that it applied to a road that went up-and-down rather than one that had lots of curves. I would suggest checking the other adjectives in the Thesaurus. For example tortuous is often used if you want to emphasise the danger. You can combine the words for extra effect: tortuously winding. However, I don't think you will find a word that is especially made for the purpose. – rghome Jan 12 '15 at 11:05
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    Switchback, by definition of multiple dictionaries, means a (mountain road) having plenty of hairpin turns. – user6951 Jan 12 '15 at 11:54
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    'Switchback' feels to me particularly Am E rather than Br E. I, of course, know what it means, but it feels like an adopted rather than 'native' word in Br E. Edit - that doesn't mean I would in any way object to it… especially as I can't think of anything better ;) – Tetsujin Jan 12 '15 at 13:24
  • @CarSmack Although a search for winding road does return the same/similar images as in the question. – MrWhite Jan 13 '15 at 23:32
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In the U.S., we call those mountainous roads "switchback" roads, with the individual turns called "hairpin" turns.

https://www.google.com/search?q=switchback+road&espv=2&biw=1147&bih=685&tbm=isch&tbo=u&source=univ&sa=X&ei=qUy0VKO3KtWxogSMpYDIBw&ved=0CB0QsAQ&dpr=0.9

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I often refer such paths/roads as ..

zig zag roads or paths

Searching this on Google Images supports this word.

In my state, we have such place called Saputara. It's famous for its hairpin curves or zigzag roads. Most of the tourists experience motion sickness due to this.

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    Wonderful images. +1 – Lucian Sava Jan 12 '15 at 8:47
  • -1 for mentioning motion sickness. I am just kidding! But, yeah, such roads can definitely bring that on, as well as vertigo if high up. – user6951 Jan 12 '15 at 9:18
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    @CarSmack Aw...true! but cannot bring 'medical' out of me! In my case, typing of such words is dyskinesia. haha! – Maulik V Jan 12 '15 at 9:26
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    @DCShannon But surely a zigzag road refers to its shape, as does serpentine. Serpentine doesn't imply anything about mountains or elevation changes either. :) But roads with such a shape are found at elevation changes, including those due to mountains. – user6951 Jan 14 '15 at 9:46
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    A nice example of a 'zig zag' road in the UK is Zig Zag Road, which goes up the side of Box Hill in Surrey, and was part of the cycling route for the 2012 Olympics. – A E Jan 14 '15 at 11:50
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I think serpentine road or winding road is as close as you're likely to get. Personally, I prefer serpentine road. To my knowledge there isn't a single-word noun form of this phrase that is generally understood.

Another user mentioned switchback, but that strikes me as less likely to be widely understood.

  • "Another user mentioned switchback" - TBH, from BrE perspective I think "switchback" is likely to be better understood than "serpentine". Although both are non-BrE. Just my opinion. – MrWhite Jan 13 '15 at 23:55
  • Although I knew what the asker meant describing the road as 'serpentine', that's not a word I believe I've ever heard applied to a road, and only understood it in the general sense of being snaky and curvy. If we're talking about a road that goes back and forth to help with extreme elevation changes, then that is a switchback. – DCShannon Jan 14 '15 at 0:26
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In england we do not speak of serpentine roads and a swichback (n) is not a road and a switchback (adj) road is not a bendy one. We are notorious for winding roads but these are not necessarily winding to ascend a hill or mountain. Meandering is more often applied to a river than a road and would not describe a bendy climbing road. We speak of hairpin BENDS rather than curves or corners. I do not think there is in British English a particular noun or adjective pertaining particularly to roads made with bends to reduce the gradient on a hill. This may be due to lack of mountains and hence such roads in england; there may be Welsh or Scottish words for such.

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    Your fellow countryman @David Richerby says that you guys "definitely can" use 'serpentine' to describe such a road. Apparently you are saying that even though you can, that nevertheless you actually do not? I have to agree about the lack of any actual mountains in England (been there, done missed them). At any rate, it is no surprise that you use different words ('bends' instead of 'curves'); that is often the case. – user6951 Jan 13 '15 at 23:55
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Instead of a 'road' you could instead call it a 'track.' 'Track' refers to it being a dirt, rather than sealed, road. So 'winding track' rather than 'winding road,' for example.

http://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/british/track

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This would be a road containing many s-bends or hair-pin corners.

  • Hi Tom. The question is looking for single word or phrase, so I don't think this really answers the question better than the existing answers. – ColleenV parted ways Jan 12 '15 at 15:23
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    @Colleen - I don't think a new answer needs to answer a question better than existing answers. If it adds something useful, it's worth adding. This answer may be scant on details but I think those are worthy ways of describing such a roadway. – J.R. Jan 12 '15 at 15:54
  • @Tom Bandy Could you add a geographic region where your terms are used? (Where you are from) – Adam Jan 12 '15 at 17:42
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    @J.R. You're correct that the answer doesn't have to be "better than" - I was rushing and could have expressed myself better. My main concern is that the answer doesn't fit into the context of writing the article mentioned in the question - it might if it had more detail or some examples added to it. I'm not the source of the downvotes by the way, and I didn't vote to delete when it came up in the review queue because of its length. I think it's a useful answer, but it could be much better. – ColleenV parted ways Jan 12 '15 at 17:46
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The word that you are looking for is "meandering".

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    The way you've worded your answer, it almost sounds like meandering is the right word – or at least superior to the others. I might agree it's a possible word, but can't agree it's "THE word that" the O.P. is "looking for". I wonder if you said that just to reach the requisite number of characters, but, if so, it would have been better to list a definition, or quote a published usage pertaining to roads, or maybe indicate whether you suggest this as a verb, adjective, or noun, since it can used as be all three. – J.R. Jan 12 '15 at 20:33
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    Meandering suggests (at least to me) that the route is haphazard, which is not true of roads that climb mountains. – ShadSterling Jan 13 '15 at 3:58
  • @Poly - To be fair, the O.P.'s question did specify: usually .. constructed in the mountain areas, but not only – J.R. Jan 13 '15 at 9:16
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    It is an option, but meandering applies directly to slow running rivers; if applied to a road, it implies it is a lazy kind of road, which might not invoke the right image. – rghome Jan 13 '15 at 9:57
  • "I’m looking for a word or a phrase for describing this kind of road" This is the question I responded to. While I would have loved to extend my answer to include more worded padding, I prefer getting to the point (just my preference) - @J.R. Meandering is used to define roads that are not direct, meaning for example roads in the mountains that have to wind and curve to compensate for the large slopes that exist in those areas – GatesReign Jan 14 '15 at 17:16
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It is called a mountain pass.

You can definitely use words like "serpentine", "sinuous", "winding" and so on to describe such a road but they're just appropriate adjectives. To give an analogy, answering the question "What is this type of road called?" with "a serpentine road" is a bit like answering "What is this this type of animal called?" with "a huge animal" rather than "an elephant".

  • In American English, a mountain pass is road that passes through two mountains. Indeed, this is the historical meaning of mountain pass. It can be more straight than curved. As for roads along a mountain pass, see for example, mountain passes in Colorado. – user6951 Jan 13 '15 at 12:48
  • Note a mountain pass will be serpentine and be composed of many switchbacks and, if one likes, hairpin turns, as it ascends or descends a mountain. Once at a certain elevation, a mountain pass (i.e, the road) can be straight for quite awhile. – user6951 Jan 13 '15 at 12:55
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Snaking road. To me, the Serpentine is a lake in Hyde Park, London, it isn't really bendy either.

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    That's just a particular use of "Serpentine", which is irrelevant to the question. It's like objecting to the use of the word "street" to talk about a road on the grounds that Street is a town in Somerset. – David Richerby Jan 13 '15 at 11:09
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    My answer was snaking. It was too short on its own, so i added my observation about serpentine, which to people in London is probably relevant. I've never heard of anything described as serpintine before reading the earlier answers. Thanks for the downvote. – xcxc Jan 13 '15 at 18:36
  • Your sarcastic criticism is unwarranted. Also, bear in mind that, while you can correlate votes and comments to your heart's content, you do not know who voted. The minimum answer length is there for a reason and, if you find yourself bumping into it, that's a really big hit that you're writing a bad answer. – David Richerby Jan 13 '15 at 21:17
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    TBH, the lake in Hyde Park (London) is the first thing I thought of too (and I'm not from London, although I am a Brit)! And I too (being a Brit) have never heard the term "serpentine" to describe "winding" or "snaking" roads. (+1) – MrWhite Jan 13 '15 at 23:46

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