I’m in the process of buying a new house, though all the marketing materials assure me that I’m really “purchasing a home.” That skips a few steps, I think. As Dictionary.com has it, home is “the place in which one’s domestic affections are centered.”  

Of course the word with emotive power is usually the better choice for marketing. In real estate lingo it’s now so common to hear “townhomes” and “new homes” that just about everyone has started to use home interchangeably with house. The unfortunate consequence is that it trivializes the emotional resonance of the word home. (Tangent: I’ve noticed that “neighborhoods” are now “communities,” which is a similar take-over.)

More from Dictionary.com, which usually does a nice job of teasing out connotations:

House, dwelling, residence, home are terms applied to a place to live in. Dwelling is now chiefly poetic, or used in legal or technical contexts, as in a lease or in the phrase multiple dwelling. Residence is characteristic of formal usage and often implies size and elegance of structure and surroundings: the private residence of the king. These two terms and house have always had reference to the structure to be lived in. Home has recently taken on this meaning and become practically equivalent to house, the new meaning tending to crowd out the older connotations of family ties and domestic comfort.  

Personally, I want those older connotations to live on. House and home are very old words (in English before 900 AD) with Old English/Germanic origins. Dwelling is Middle English from the late 1200s. Residence (late 1300s) comes to us via the Medieval Latin/Middle French linguistic migration, as does domicile (late 1400s). All of these words bring senses of “places for people to live,” either emphasizing the building or the act of living in it.

There’s one more for a place to live: habitat. I like the word, both the sound and the meaning. There’s overlap, but in its primary meaning, it’s conceptually much bigger than a building and goes beyond location. “The natural environment of an organism; place that is natural for the life and grown of an organism.” It’s newer to English—mid-1700s—and comes straight to us from Latin. Interestingly, the Latin origin has nothing to do with life or living. It’s a form of habere, the Latin word for “to have, hold.”

I think we need all these words, and we need their distinct meanings. Buying a house, taking up residence there, and making it home—I think those are almost a progression. The next phase is to start putting down roots, which is lovely metaphor that fits neatly with habitat: a place to have and hold, an environment that’s natural for life and growth. 


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