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Some surprising house origins

In this Housing edition of The Senior Times we reveal the original meanings of your place of abode.

House and home are among the oldest words in the English language, both being in use before the year 1000. Similar words can also be found in virtually all other Germanic-based languages such as the Dutch huus, German haus and Swedish hus. Etymologically (if not in reality!) a husband is bonded with a house, as originally it meant “master of the household” and not “male spouse.” The word home comes from the Old English hām that referred to a place where one lives and the “ham” spelling lives on in place names such as Birmingham and Durham.

We also see longevity and Germanic origins in the basic ingredients of a house: room, wall, floor, door, and roof. Not quite as ancient in English is the word window that arrived in our language in the 13th century, replacing the Old English eyethurl that meant “eye-hole.” But isn’t window a far more poetic word, literally meaning the “eye of the wind?”

The word for the prettiest of homes, cottage, is first recorded in the 13th century and derives from the Old English word cote that referred to a humble dwelling. This spelling has survived the ages in the word dovecote. Until the 18th century the word cottage was restricted to the homes of the poor, and the OED states that it was only in the 19th century that “the name is divested of all associations with poverty.” Methinks this was a ploy foisted on us by Victorian realtors to increase the market value of hovels.

Likewise, mansion and manor had humble beginnings and etymologically both refer to a place one stays or dwells, deriving from the Latin manere, “remain or stay.” By the late 14th century, however, the word’s meaning ameliorated and its prime sense came to refer to the chief residence of a lord.

At the other end of the real estate scale, the key to understanding the etymology of apartment is in isolating “part,” as the word was first used in the 17th century to refer to the part of a house or building consisting of a suite or set of rooms, allotted to the use of a particular person or group. Only in 18th century North America did it acquire its present meaning of a single unit within a multi-unit residential building that is leased by an individual who occupies the space.

However, if you are male and pride yourself on your suave bachelor apartment, you might not want to relay to your urbane dates that the word bachelor derives from the Latin baccalaria and is related to the Latin word for cow, bacca. Also, a baccalarius referred to a person employed on a grazing farm, though it is unlikely that any academic degree was conferred as a result of a passing mark in sheep grazing.

A bungalow is of more recent and exotic vintage. In Hindustani, bangla means belonging to Bengal, and in the 17th century a bungalow referred to a lightly built house, usually with a thatched roof. Over time, the term became generalized for any single-storey house.

Bringing us up-to-date, the sense of condominium as an owned apartment unit only goes back to 1962, but the word’s first usage can be traced back to 1714, when the Danes believed that the Duke of Holstein’s construction of new forts “was contrary to the condominium, which that king and the duke have in that duchy” i.e. joint rule or sovereignty.

Many a contemporary feuding condo or townhouse owner will identify with this snippet of Danish/German real estate history.

Howard Richler's latest book is Can I Have a Word With You? He can be reached at



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