In this series, I aim to give you guys tips and tricks for studying history. In the first installment, we backtracked a popular black urban legend. In the second installment, we discussed how to search for clues to provide context for general life in the past. In this one, I will go over the importance of etymology in the study of human history.
Etymology is the history of words. Tons of words throughout time have been repurposed, faded out of use, or came back from the dead as popular slang. The word naughty used to mean one had nothing. It eventually became a word for evil or immoral and later mutated into meaning badly behaved. The word flirt used to mean flicking something away or popping open a fan. Hussy, a term used by my grandmother's generation to describe a loose woman, used to mean housewife, or mistress of a household.
False Etymology is exactly what it sounds like- fake history of words. A few months ago on twitter a popular meme claimed that the term Master Bedroom originated from slavery. I was baffled because it was something that had never came up in my own personal research. I also saw that a few news outlets reported that there was a move away from using the word in the real estate biz.
This is where the importance of etymology comes in. Lets break down the term.
While certainly many people think of American chattel slavery when they hear the term master, the term isn't racist like some claim. For starters, the term is a descendant of the latin magister, meaning chief or head. It would become the middle english mægester and eventually master (noun). Master has served as the term for a head of household since at least the 12th century, and was used to describe authoritative academic degrees since the late 14th century. The term bedroom has been in use since the 1600s. The terms that pre-dated it was the 11th century chambers. As for the complete term Master Bedroom, there is no proof of it existing prior to 1925. A perusal of house blueprints and home buying brochures from 1900-1924 reveals this. The biggest bedroom was simply called a bedroom or chambers.
Because slavery was over in 1925, we can safely assume that Master Bedroom would refer to the quarters of the head of house. The term became more frequently used in blueprints as house building companies became more numerous in the mid-20th century, as a way to gussy up sales. Most homes prior to the 1920s were individually built, or built by small local contractors. House plans, along with brochures, became more uniform and commercial.
Bonus Fun Fact: The average US home was just 950 square feet in 1900. It's now 2600 square feet.
3 Tips To Integrate Etymology and World/Human/American History:
- Search for use of the word you're interested in, using primary sources before and after the alleged origin. This means blueprints, newspapers, diaries, etc.
- Check if the original root word has been perverted or altered. In the case of "master", the root word is the latin "magister" meaning chief or head. Because that pre-dates American slavery, we know the term master was not originated from the subjugation of blacks.
- Is there any relevant applicable history that might influence use of the word you're researching? For example, the commercialization of housebuilding impacting housing terms.
- Online Etymology Dictionary
- A Brief History of Residential Design by Radford Architectural Co.
- Home Builders Stop Using Racist, Gender-Biased Phrase ‘Master Bedroom’ (Doug Barry)
- Another College Stops Using the Word ‘Master’ Because of Slavery ‘Connotation’ (Katherine Timpf)
- 20 Words That Once Meant Something Very Different
If you're into housing architecture, I suggest you check out this interactive infographic on how American homes have changed since 1900!