Samples Literature A ‘Simple’ Concept: Evolution of the Word ‘House’

A ‘Simple’ Concept: Evolution of the Word ‘House’

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English is a descendant of Germanic languages that evolved over thousands of years into West Germanic, Anglo-Frisian, to Anglic and English. As such, a significant percentage of words in the English language have a Germanic provenance. Angle and Saxon tribes descended on England beginning in the fifth century, filling the power vacuum left behind by the receding Roman Empire. One of the most elementary nouns in the language is that which indicates one’s home place, a particularly important concept in Anglo-Saxon culture, as it is in many others. Today, the obvious similarities in both appearance and pronunciation offer clear evidence of the parallel ancestry that exists between the English and German versions of this word, reflecting the shared ancestry of these two important modern languages.

The precise origin of the ancient Germanic word for house is unclear. The Proto-Germanic word husan perhaps is related to the root of hide, indicating a material of which an ancient domicile may have been constructed (Online Etymological Dictionary, 2013). From this root meaning came the Old Frisian word hus (as well as the modern Dutch word huis as well as the German Haus) (2013). In Gothic, the root hus appears in Gudhus, meaning temple or (literally) “god-house” (2013). Once established among the ancient Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of England, house came to have a more multi-dimensional meaning. By approximately the year 1000, house referred to a family, or to family in the dynastic sense, “including ancestors and descendants, especially if noble…” (2013). This appears in English-language versions of the Bible, such as the following passage: “And the Prophet Isaiah the sonne of Amos came to him, and said unto him, Thus saith the Lord, Set thine house in order: for thou shalt die, and not live” (2013). Thus, the concept for “house” in the English language evolved into a richly meaningful word from a quite early period.

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As European society evolved through the Middle Ages, house came to represent an edifice in which laws were created and enacted, a concept dating from the 16th century and which comes down to us in the form of the House of Representatives, the houses of Parliament, and so forth (Oxford English Dictionary, 2011). It has become part of a number of compound words in English, such as warehouse, playhouse, outhouse and many others (Online Etymological Dictionary, 2013). The houses of the Zodiac dates to the 14th century, while the notion of “playing house” is a much more modern idea, dating to the late 19th century (2013).

English also uses house to describe an inn, or place of temporary lodging, a usage that came into widespread usage in 18th-century England and is familiar in many works of fiction from the 18th and 19th centuries, such as the novels of Charles Dickens. From this origin comes the phrase “a square house,” meaning that patrons are not extended credit but must pay for board, food and drink up front. Thus, house has proven to be a typically versatile, flexible and utilitarian word in the modern English language.

An example of that versatility is to be found in the use of house as a verb, a usage that has provided English with a litany of popular expressions. The most popular and obvious use of house as a verb is in phraseology that describes sheltering any number of objects, ranging from people to animals and inanimate objects (Oxford English Dictionary, 2011). Thus, one may give housing to a person or even an animal, in the sense of providing shelter. There also several more modern colloquial expressions that have come into use during modern times, ranging from “house arrest,” as in to place someone in a semblance of incarceration, to quite modern iterations, such as describing an individual who has arrived, notably, on the scene, i.e. “he’s in the house…” “House music” describes a variety of rhythmic, or poly-rhythmic, electronic sound first made popular in the 1980s in the United States, and which has further tied the word to a subculture that has added new dimension to the concept.

Consequently, house has evolved to mean a collection of individuals gathered together in some venue, which could be anything from a bar to a stadium or arena. In this sense, house has been endowed with a very generic meaning, which has made it even more versatile. This evolutionary process is not, in itself, unusual in the English language, in which words may come to have multiple meanings. But the evolution of the word house offers one of the more notable examples of how English “recycles” words, adding expressiveness and making maximum use of an otherwise simple concept.