Q: I recently looked up the word “tenement” after hearing an NPR correspondent use it. To my surprise, I learned that it can refer to any rental building, not just a rundown one. Why do I associate tenements with slums?
A: When I think of tenements, I too think of slum buildings, especially those that housed the waves of immigrants that transformed New York City in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
But the origin of “tenement” has little to do with slums and poverty. The Barnhart Concise Dictionary of Etymology says the word dates back to 1303, when it referred to the leasing of land or buildings. It came to mean a leased dwelling place fairly soon, probably sometime before 1400.
The use of the term “tenement house” for an apartment building in a poor section of a city was first recorded in 1858, according to Barnhart. How did the new meaning come about?
The Lower East Side Tenement Museum traces the slum connection to the construction of large, shoddy rental buildings for the working class in New York City in the 19th century. The museum’s website says the early tenements “represented some of the worst housing ever built in this country.”
The museum uses the term “tenement” to refer to a rental building that housed working-class families in New York from the mid-19th century to the adoption of the Multiple Dwelling Law in the city in 1929.
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