Publishing house. Fashion house. House style. Have you ever wondered why we call some businesses "houses"?
A few months ago I was on Derek Lewis’s podcast, The Business Book Podcast, which gives advice to people writing business books, and then just a few weeks ago, Derek asked me a question that piqued my interest. He wrote,
“Why do we say ‘house’ in many business and professional settings? For example, ‘House of Dior,’ ‘house style,’ ‘house salad,’ ‘a major publishing house,’ etc.? I hazard the guess that it's because virtually all businesses used to be home-based businesses, but I can't find anything anywhere on the subject.”
'House' Is a Very Old Word
Well, like the word “dead,” which we talked about recently, “house” is an especially old word that goes back to Old English. Some of the earliest citations in the Oxford English Dictionary are from some of the most famous old manuscripts in the English language: “Beowulf,” the West Saxon Gospels, and Bede’s “Ecclesiastical Histories.”
The use of the word “house” to describe a place of business or a building used by people for nonresidential reasons also goes back to Old English though. It doesn’t appear to be a later addition after “house” the residence.
The OED notes that many compound words—such as “almshouse,” “bathhouse,” “lighthouse,” and “slaughterhouse”—use “house” to make compounds that describe the purpose of a structure.
There are even Old English citations that resemble the more specific examples in your question such as “publishing house” and “House of Dior.”
“Printing house,” for example, first appeared in the mid-1500s, about 75 years after William Caxton introduced the first printing press in England. The first instance of the phrase “style of the house” looks like it appeared in 1871, and “house style” was first put in print in 1905.
Casinos started being referred to as “the house” in 1776.
Is Random House Really Random?
Finally, an interesting tidbit I came across while researching all these uses of “house” is that supposedly Random House, the publisher, was not based on someone’s name--there was no Mr. Random. Its name comes from the meaning of the word “random” because in 1927, one of the founders said they were “going to publish a few books on the side at random," and since it was a publishing house, they decided to call it Random House. I find that funny and charming.
And since Random House merged with Penguin a few years ago to make Penguin Random House, I thought it would be fun to also look at how Penguin got its name, but the story there is a little less exciting. The founder wanted a logo that was “dignified but flippant” and his secretary suggested a penguin.
When Did People Start Living in Separate Houses?
Anyway, back to the main question. Like Derek, I couldn’t find an exact answer as to why what we think of as a word for a residence is also used to describe so many different kinds of business entities. I can tell you that it doesn’t seem like the residence meaning arose first to be followed by the business meaning—they seem to have emerged at the same time. And like Derek, I suspect it has at least something to do with the close intermingling of home and work life before the industrial revolution.
I know almost nothing about the history of architecture, but Wikipedia has an interesting article about the evolution of housing design, and it says that most dwellings were communal and quite lacking in privacy during the fifteenth century and earlier. Supposedly, it wasn’t until the late 1500s that homes were built with corridors that had rooms off them with one door so that people weren’t passing through each other’s rooms all the time. It’s pretty interesting.
Image courtesy of Shutterstock.
Mignon Fogarty is Grammar Girl and the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips. Check out her New York Times best-seller “Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing” and her 2018 tip-a-day calendar.