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Is That Really What You Mean?

Language is a code. Like all codes, if you know the rules, you can understand what’s being said or written. At times, however, some people don’t want you to understand what they’re saying and employ techniques to deceive or keep secrets from you.

They use obscure jargon and complicated technical terms knowing full well that their vocabularies are beyond us. They deliberately use new words to cause confusion whilst allowing their own little cliques to understand what is meant. Teenagers are particularly good at doing this to conceal from their parental generation exactly what they’re up to. Just think of the slang names given to drugs, sex and music and you get the picture.

Over time, the meanings of words and phrases can change and metaphors that once made complete sense can later be rather baffling. Nowhere is this more common than in the home where new words are applied to old meanings reflecting changes in household activities and design. Toilets were once rooms used for washing rather than a place for urinating and defacating. They became lavatories or WCs but have been variously called the “small room,” “little boy’s room,” “conveniences,” “closet” or, by Americans, “bathroom” with the intention to be polite and sensitive and sometimes slightly confusing. Answer phones have been kicked into touch by voice mail.

Names can be changed to make things appear grander, more modern or more important. Sculleries became utility rooms which gives them a more utilitarian and multi-functional character. The pantry or larder has disappeared from modern domestic architecture and been replaced with a tall kitchen cupboard yet still retains its old name, clinging to the past but now with a totally different appearance. The fridge and the freezer are abbreviations of “refrigerator” and “deep freeze” and as they have become such common features in our homes, the use of the longer names is pretty restricted to an earlier generation which did not grow up with these appliances and still gives them their full title.

Solariums (or “solaria” if you want to be pedantic) were once additions to sanatoriums and spa hotels but gradually became a feature of homes in the 1920s. Later they became “sun lounges” and more recently morphed with the nineteenth century glass houses that were built to imitate a tropical climate and have become “conservatories” (where little conserving is ever done).

French windows were originally seventeenth century full length glass panes that allowed more light into a room. Hinges were added and they became doors but in the mid 1950s, they started to slide open and became “patio doors” and in their more recent reincarnation are known as “bi-fold” doors. Call them by the wrong name and you risk raising the odd eyebrow or simply not being understood. They all bring “the outside in”  but ironically contrast with the relatively new terms of “double” or “triple” glazing which aim to keep the inside protected from the outside climate.

Living rooms have become living “areas” and before that they were lounges, sitting rooms or drawing rooms (for withdrawing not for art work). They were “best” rooms (so hardy ever used), “front” rooms even if they weren’t at the front. The changed names perhaps reflect a change in  lifestyle: once we sat, then we lounged, now we’re a bit vague about what we do. A “drawing room” sounds so formal yet an “area” sounds imprecise, amorphous and able to change as quickly as technology advances.

Estate agents’ property particulars are the perfect place to see these linguistic changes. We know that a home where “you can put your own mark” means that the property needs gutting. “Quaint and bijou” have gone out of the window but “historic” or “period” features are now highlighted but should never be taken on by the faint hearted. A home for “contemporary living” usually means open plan without a separate kitchen and nowhere to escape from noisy children or adults for that matter.

In life, as in home descriptions, we don’t always say what we mean but as long as we know the rules, we’ll just about get by until the next generation comes up with new words to confound us.