English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

Rental telepathy

Q: I live in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and listen to Pat on WNYC, but I couldn’t get through on the phone to ask her this question: What do you call someone who subleases an apartment FROM somebody, and someone who subleases an apartment TO somebody? I’ve seen so many variations that I’m going mental.

A: It’s not surprising that you’ve noticed some confusion in these terms, since your neighborhood is a hot spot in a fevered urban real estate market.

To begin with, let’s imagine the classic rental relationship—landlord and tenant. The “lessor” is the one who grants the lease (the landlord). The “lessee” is the one who’s granted the lease (the tenant).

Now if this primary tenant (or “lessee”) then subleases his apartment to someone else, he becomes a “sublessor.” And the person who’s granted the sublease is the “sublessee” (also called a subtenant).

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a “sublease” as “a lease granted by a person who is himself or herself a lessee of the property in question.”

A “sublessor,” in the OED’s definition, is “a person who grants a sublease,” and a “sublessee” is “a person to whom a sublease is granted.”

An all-purpose term, “subletter,” can refer to either a “sublessor” or a “sublessee,” according to the OED, but you won’t find it in most standard dictionaries, so we’d be hesitant to recommend it. (Besides, it’s ambiguous.)

By the way, the terms “sublease” and “sublet” (both as nouns and as verbs) mean the same thing and can be used interchangeably.

All these terms naturally feel very contemporary. But in fact they’ve been around for quite a while.

“Lease,” in the sense we’re talking about, first appeared in writing as a noun in 1483 and as a verb in 1570.

Both came into English from Anglo-Norman and are traceable to an Old French verb, lesser or laissier, meaning “to let, let go.” (The modern French equivalent is laisser.

The ultimate source, however, is Latin—the verb laxare (to loosen), derived  from the adjective laxus (loose).

Here are some related terms, along with the dates they first appeared in writing, according to OED citations:

“Lessor” 1487; “lessee” 1495; “sublease” 1758 (noun), 1824 (verb); “let” 909 (verb meaning to rent); “sublet” 1766 (verb), 1834 (noun); “sublessee” 1651; “sublessor” 1813; “subletter” 1825.

One final note. Like “rent,” the verbs “lease,” “sublease,” and “sublet” work both ways—they can mean either to grant a rental contract or to assume one.

In other words, you can lease or sublease or sublet property to someone or from someone. 

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