n. A room or area for preparing food.

A coworker mused aloud just the other day, “Why is it we have bedroom, dining room, living room, bathroom and….. kitchen.”

Why indeed? Of course, we are simplifying things a bit too much, excluding even current room names like basement, foyer, and office, and more archaic room names like boudoir, parlor, and study. But nonetheless, why the preponderance of -rooms and the rather unique “kitchen” in our modern household terminology?

«Kitchen» by Vincenzo Campi, c. 1580

We’ll begin at the beginning. The Proto-Indo-European language had a root, *pekʷ-, which referred to cooking. As I mentioned several weeks ago in my article about numeral names, the Latin language had a tendency to take any PIE roots which contained an initial p- and internal and assimilate the p into another . In this case, the Latin gives us coquere (to cook) and coquina (kitchen); the French borrowed it as cuisine (which, as you probably noticed, we in turn borrowed from the French as something slightly different); the Germanic languages borrowed it as *kocina, and by the time it was appropriated into Old English, it had become cycene, and by the time of Middle English it had become kichene, recognizable as a recent relative of our own modern form.

It’s important to note that the word was in place in the English language well before the 12th century, which may have something to do with its longevity. As we will see, our other modern -room constructions are relatively recent replacements of more complicated things. The word “room” itself, by the way, is adapted from the Old English rum (← Proto-Germanic *ruman ← P.I.E. *rew- (“wide” or “open”), and originally referred to any space, but came to refer to spaces within houses sometime in the mid-15th century when it replaced the Old English cofa (our modern “cove”).

Take the modern “bathroom”, which only dates back to 1780, a period well after the greatest flux in English was already done. Clearly a composite word (and an Americanism, at that), it replaced the more traditional lavatory, a 14th century borrowing from Latin lavatorium1. While lavatory initially referred to a washbasin, it later gained the sense of a “washroom”, and finally took to mean a toilet in the early 20th century. The word “bath” itself is another Anglo-Saxon word: the Old English is bæð, from a PIE root meaning “to warm”, which also gave is the modern word “foment” via Latin.

“Bedroom” dates back a little farther, having cropped up in the early 17th century when it replaced “bedchamber” in the popular tongue. The latter, clearly, is also a composite word which could have only dated from the early 12th century, as the word “chamber” didn’t enter English until then via French (chambre) from Latin (camera) and Ancient Greek (καμάρα, or kamara, a vaulted chamber). The more important part of that composite word, “bed”, is from the Old English bedd, a workhorse word which referred to bed both in the sense of a place for sleeping as well as a place for gardening—e.g. a “bed of roses” (the P.I.E., *bhedh-, referred to digging and clearly meant the latter).

“Living room” in the sense of a general room for entertaining or residing is the most recent coining yet, not appearing until 1825, and probably formed by analogy with its older composite cousins “bedroom” and “dining room”. “Living” in the sense of dwelling or residing in a particular place, comes from the 14th-century Old English lifiende, from the same P.I.E. root that gives us the modern “leave”.

But speaking of dining rooms, they cropped up in the language around the same time as “bedroom” (early 17th century), another easy composite of “dine” and “room”; the important root here came from the Old French disner and therefore very obviously from the Vulgar Latin *disjejunare. What you might not realize is that the same Latin root that gives us the modern French loanword jejune, which refers to metaphorical lack of substance but apparently got its meaning from a more literal sort of hunger.

That’s largely it for -room rooms, which doesn’t seem like a lot until you consider that such rooms are also the most common and frequently mentioned rooms of a house, which may account for some of their notoriety. The general trend seems to be that our modern usage favors recent constructions or popularizations, and the times at which such constructions entered the language seemed to favor Anglo-Saxon words, with the notable exception of the dining room.

But what of the other notable components of a house? How did we come to refer to a garage and a basement and a parlor? A study? A foyer?

Most are easy: a “study” in the sense of a room filled with desks and books is an early 14th-century coinage, unsurprisingly from French (estudier, from the Latin studiare connoting diligence, from the P.I.E. *(s)teu-, which meant to “knock” or “beat”), since Old English would still have been at that point the tongue of the lower class, and any person who could both afford and use an office would likely be both wealthy and learnéd and therefore intimately familiar with French and/or Latin.

Though its largely fallen out of the language now, “parlor” also came from French—specifically parleor—and by the late 14th century had come to refer to a specific room of the house meant for private conversation. By a number of twists and turns, the word comes from the Latin parabola (“comparison”), which in one branch came to refer to speech and thus gives us “parley” and “parlance” and “parable”: the parabola of geometry is a different idea entirely.

One word that was never adapted from the French, but rather borrowed directly, is foyer, which we now use interchangeably with “entryway” but which originally referred to an off-stage area for actors. Curiously, its literal definition is “fireplace”, inheriting that meaning from its Latin origin word of focus. If that confuses you, because you think of “focus” as a point of visual convergence, that’s because the modern definition didn’t come around until the aspiring astronomer Johannes Kepler neologized it in 1604. The change in meaning for “foyer” seems to have come about in the sense that this off-stage area could also be the lobby of many theaters, and so the sense of a foyer as both a hearth and a lobby came into popular notion. Only the latter sense, to my knowledge, survives today in American English.

“Basement” is an 18th century coinage, and yet another composite word combining the root base (another Latinate word via French, and the same origin of our “basis” and “basic”) with the suffix -ment. This is an interesting case, because though -ment is a common Latinate suffix use in English to transform verbs into nouns (e.g. punish→punishment, banish→banishment, argue→argument), Doug Harper places the room name in 1730 but the verb of “base” in the sense of “to place on a foundation” doesn’t arise until 1841, meaning that the indicated construction must have arisen from an existing verb form or be something else entirely.

The garage is the most recent construction of all, which is no surprise considering that until the advent of automobiles, there was no such structure (just stables, I suppose). The word, as well as its pronunciation if you use the soft internal “zh” (i.e. “guh-razh”), is a transplant from French, which was generalized as a shelter of any sort and at one point referred to the docking of ships. Though most French words are Latinate, this particular verb came from the Frankish *waron and the P.I.E. root *wer-, meaning “to cover”. This is the same root, by the way, which gives us “warrant” and “warranty”, a word that was imported into English again as guarantee, a linguistic slight of hand very common for initial g and w, since neither originally existed (written as a “yogh” or ȝ until systematically replaced by Norman scribes).

I end on the garage because it inevitably begs the age-old question intoned by smartasses everywhere: why do we drive on a parkway and park on a driveway? The simple answer, of course, is that one didn’t originally park on driveways, since they tended to be long stretches of private road leading from the edges of an estate to the garage; they were, in fact, literal what their names suggested.

A parkway, on the other hand, is a very public thoroughfare, but the word originally referred to special road which was heavily landscaped and meant for pleasure cruises (read: like driving through a park); somewhat more generally, it can also refer to a highway with a landscaped median. This sense left quickly as the pace of road development turns such things into strictly utilitarian places, much to our great loss2. In fairness to the word’s original meaning, “park” in the sense of an enclosed grassy space is 13th-century; the verb form that we use today with cars doesn’t show up for another 500 years or so.

  1. Note that lavar is “to wash” in Spanish[]
  2. If you want a more exacting history of the linguistic ramifications of cars and transport in America, I would suggest Bill Bryson’s Made in America.[]
§5994 · September 29, 2010 · Tags: , , , ·

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