The Grammarphobia Blog

Home study

Q: A recent guest on WNYC kept referring to “a home or an apartment.” Since when is an apartment not a home? I thought “home” meant the place you live. And yet many people use the word as if it were synonymous with a house. As an apartment dweller, I find this unsettling; it seems to suggest that I am homeless.

A: The noun “home” has many different meanings, from the headquarters of a company to a residence for the elderly to the place where a cursor hangs out in the upper-left-hand corner of a computer screen.

But the primary meaning in modern dictionaries is the place where one lives, whether a house, an apartment, an Airstream, a Quonset hut, or an igloo.

The noun “home” has been with us since Anglo-Saxon days. In its earliest published reference, from around the year 900, the word meant a village or town – that is, a group of dwellings. But it soon came to mean a dwelling place, especially one’s principal residence, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Over the last century or so, according to citations in the OED, the word “home” has been used increasingly in place of “house.” Although this usage is most common in the US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, the dictionary says, it is spreading elsewhere in the English-speaking world.

Interestingly, the first published reference I see in the OED for “home” used to mean “house” comes not from a North American or an Australasian, but from the 19th century English poet Felicia Hemans.

The stately Homes of England,
How beautiful they stand!
Amidst their tall ancestral trees,
O’er all the pleasant land.

The poem, which was first published in 1827 in Blackwood’s magazine, was parodied by Noël Coward in his 1938 musical Operette:

The Stately Homes of England,
How beautiful they stand,
To prove the upper classes
Have still the upper hand.

Is this usage legit? Well, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) lists “house” as one of the meanings of “home.” But The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) doesn’t include this sense in its entry for “home.”

Bryan Garner, in Garner’s Modern American Usage, recommends against using “home” to refer to a house. “In the best usage,” Garner writes, “the structure is always called a house.” I’ll second that.

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