Etymologies of some common and not-so-common words from Bill Bryson’s At Home (a history of homes and home life).
room and board
chairman of the board
make a bed
Every member of the household, including servants, retainers, dowager widows, and anyone else with a continuing attachment, was considered family—they were literally familiar, to use the word in its original sense. In the most commanding (and usually least drafty) position in the hall [at a time when the ‘hall’ was nearly the whole house] was a raised platform called a dais, where the owner and his family ate—a practice recalled by the high tables still found in colleges and boarding schools that have (or sometimes simply wish to project) a sense of long tradition. The head of the household was the husband—a compound term meaning literally ‘householder’ or ‘house owner.’ His role as manager and provider was so central that the practice of land management became known as husbandry. Only much later did husband come to signify a marriage partner.
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Sometimes these private rooms were built on two stories, with the upper—called a solar—reached by a ladder or very basic stairway. Solar sounds sunny and light, but in fact the name was merely an adaptation of solive, the French word for floor joist or beam. Solars were simply rooms perched on joists, and for a long time they were the only upstairs room that most houses afforded. So little did people think of rooms in the modern sense that the word room, with the meaning of an enclosed chamber or distinct space, isn’t recorded in English until the time of the Tudors.
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The Old English word for slave was thrall, which is why when we are enslaved by an emotion we are enthralled.
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Bare earth floors remained the norm in much of rural Britain and Ireland until the twentieth century. “The ‘ground floor’ was justly named,” as the historian James Ayres has put it.
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Dining tables were simply boards laid across trestles…. In humbler dwellings, matters were generally about as simple as they could be. The dining table was a plain board called by that name. It was hung on the wall when not in use, and was perched on the diners’ knees when food was served. Over time, the word board came to signify not just the dining surface but the meal itself, which is where the board comes from in room and board. It also explains why lodgers are called boarders and why an honest person—someone who keeps his hands visible at all time—is said to be aboveboard.
Seating was on plain benches—in French, bancs, from which comes banquet. Until the 1600s. chairs were rare—the word chair itself dates only from about 1300—and were designed not to be comfortable but to impute authority [only the head of the household sat in a chair—everyone else sat on benches]. Even now, of course, the person in charge of a meeting chairs it, and a person in charge of a company is the chairman of the board—a term that additionally, and a little oddly, recalls the dining habits of medieval peasants.
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After an evening meal, the inhabitants of the medieval hall had no bedrooms in which to retire. We ‘make a bed’ today because in the Middle Ages that is essentially what you did—you rolled out a cloth sleeping pallet or heaped a pile of straw, found a cloak or blanket and fashioned whatever comfort you could….. Until well into the seventeenth century, bed meant only the mattress and what it was stuffed with; for the frame and its contents there was the separate word bedstead.