'Home' an etymological study

Home is a simple word, but one with a diversity and multiplicity of meanings, inseparably tied to the personal. Emelia Lehmann discusses its origins in the English-speaking world and beyond.

Home. Simple, concise, it leaves the mouth as easily as a breath, a sigh - oh - a sweet sound. The satisfying hum at the end, mmm, is like the beginnings of a smile, the tone of contentment, satisfaction and serenity. The word is a quiet drone, constant, consistent, that underlies every action, every thought, every sound. And yet the simplicity of the word is a cover - a mask which disguises its significances, its histories, its global connotations - which veils the complexity of its meanings and associations.

The English word ‘home’ is a deeply personal one. It is different for everyone. It is the place people associate with their origins and identities. England is one such home, America another; a home can be a nation, a dot on the map which gives one a physical location within the larger world. Likewise, it can be brought down to a more microscopic level, to counties, towns, physical structures in which people reside. All of these can constitute an idea of home. And yet, there is nothing ‘English’ about the word home at all. Home is not an idea that belongs only to the English-speaking world. The word itself is the product of centuries of linguistic and cultural connections and appropriations throughout Europe and the wider world.

Home is derived from the Old English ham, meaning dwelling place. This referred to physical structures, like a house, and was later applied to the wider construct of a village, region, or country, extending to incorporate a wider world of relationships. In this way, ham moved beyond a specific place of residence to the local world within which individuals existed and lived. Ham could refer to an estate, the physical space where people came together to work, live, and play. Alternatively, ham meant ‘native land,’ a space which constituted and constructed origins and identity. It could be the place where one lived in the present moment, or the place from which one had come.

The word ham itself is not native to the English language; it entered English somewhere in the medieval period. Ham is an adaption of the Proto-Germanic word haimaz, meaning village, the Old Norse word heimr for world, the Danish hjem, the Middle Dutch heem, the German heim, and the Gothic haims, all of which share the Proto-Indo-European root tkei, to be home. The English word ‘home’ is part of a long history of interactions with other languages and other conceptions of the term. Home has experienced new surroundings, new incorporations, and new meanings, adopting and adapting much in the same way that we do when we find ourselves in new environments.

When I consider my own home, I am at a loss to define it. What is my abode, my estate, my village, my world? The spaces I occupy are increasingly global. I have lived in two countries and four states. I've scampered up the stairs and marked the steady rise in my height on the walls of five houses and one apartment building. That's not to mention the number of dorm rooms I've occupied in my last three years, moving in and out of resident halls like a bird in a cuckoo clock popping out to chirp the time. One. Two. Three. Four… These have all been places I’ve referred to as home, the return addresses I’ve put on down on letters, physical locations I remember inhabiting.

Home, though, is also a feeling, memories and associations which arise at unexpected moments. The smell of barbecue reminds me of family dinners; friends waving at me across the quad make me think of the groups I belong to and the people I love. Sitting and reading in the sun, lazy Sunday mornings wandering through farmers markets, coffee in the mornings — all of these things remind me of places where I’ve been happy and allow me to recreate an idea of home in my daily life. My physical spaces are transformed by the habits, smells, and feelings of home that reside within my mind.

And yet, that is precisely what home is and what its long and complex history shows. The word itself has, for centuries, incorporated the local and the global, the corporeal and the incorporeal. It is both fixed in space and time, and able to be recalled and recreated through memory, feeling, and sense. Home, even in its most basic linguistic structure, is a global phenomenon, the creation of worldly interactions and associations which defy physical definitions and geographic locations. Like the sweet satisfaction and contentment that saying the word brings, home is a word which is universal and personal at the same time. Home is like the air that we breath - everywhere, but also necessarily our own. A sweet undertone that brings music to our lives. •

Emelia Lehmann is a History and Anthropology student on exchange from the University of Chicago.