One Word; Many Meanings

In It’s All in a Word, British linguist Vivian Cook reminds us that the true measure of our vocabulary is not so much our command of words as our command of their innumerable meanings. Take “mean” itself, which, among other things, can refer to signification (I don’t know what you mean by that remark), intent (I mean to have dinner tonight), a consequence (This means trouble), unkindness (The children were mean to one another), avarice (Ebenezer Scrooge was mean with his money), lowliness (From mean beginnings, she rose high in her profession), excellence (He was a mean skateboarder), a midpoint (Mean income is only one indicator of economic wellbeing), and, with an “s”, wealth (We have the means to buy a Porsche).

In this excerpt, Cook explores the myriad meanings of another common word: “house.”

House is number 217 in the British National Corpus frequency list, so it is among the most used words of English. The OED, the most complete source for English, has forty-three pages of printout for house in the online version, with nine main entries and twenty-four subentries if you include phrases. The meaning of what the OED calls ‘the simple word’ house is given as ‘a building for human habitation; esp. a building that is the ordinary dwelling place of a family’: people by and large live in houses.

“But do they actually have to live there? A lighthouse is for displaying a warning light and may or may not be inhabited. A public house is for drinking, even if some of its patrons appear never to leave. The Houses of Parliament are not a place for MPs to live even if some go to sleep there. In other words, a house can be a place where people gather in groups for a purpose. A whole group of meanings to do with ‘belonging to an establishment’ spins off from this, such as house wine in restaurants, house lights in a theatre or house bands in clubs, together with such jobs as a houseman and a housemaid.

“Do the residents of a house have to be human beings? A warehouse is for storing goods; a hothouse for keeping plants. A tortoise’s house is its shell. House also means something which purposefully contains something – Put the tool back in its house. The residents of the house, so to speak, are anything that belongs within a house, whether a houseplant, a housefly or a house mite, though house sparrows and house martins are not usually welcome indoors.

“Does a house have to have a physical location? Schools can have houses that pupils belong to even if the buildings don’t exist. A business can be a publishing house without anyone imagining it is run from the publisher’s home; some business tasks may be carried out in house rather than farmed out to others. A house can be an invisible notional place.

“Does it have to be a place at all? A house is also a group of people: the House of Windsor or the House of Fraser. One meaning is any group linked by some common theme, such as a family.

“And there are many more meanings, such as House of God, house of the ascendant (astrology) and house music. In the compound words with house, the meaning can seldom be worked out from the sum of the parts: a hothouse is not the same as a house that is hot and a glasshouse is more likely to have bars, at least in the Army, than glass in its windows.

“The number of meanings for the common word house and its compounds is at least in the hundreds without going outside everyday meanings all of us are familiar with: one simple word has multiple meanings. Doubtless the same is true for virtually every word in the language. What each of us knows about words is mind-boggling in its extent.”