Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

This Old House: Dom- Sweet Dom-

We're all spending a lot of time at home these days. This inescapable (literally) fact got us thinking about words for house and home.

Many of those words — such as domestic, domicile, domain, and even condominium — share a common root with a very long history: dom-.

Domus (δόμος) means "house" in Greek, and Latin borrowed it, but its origins go much further back in time: all the way to the stone age! Its root, dom, is Proto-Indo-European, the common ancestor of most languages from India to Europe, likely spoken from around 4500–2500 BCE. As a result, languages as different as Sanskrit, Russian, and Armenian all get their words for house or home from the same source.

In Latin, domus refers to a specific type of dwelling occupied by upper-class Romans. A domus was typically built around one or more courtyards, and grander examples had multiple stories and lavish decorations: statues, fountains, and frescoed walls. Our words atrium, vestibule, cubicle, and culinary all come from names for different rooms in a domus.

The most famous example is the Domus Aurea, or "golden house," a 300-acre palace compound built by the Emperor Nero in Rome. Fun fact: the Colosseum, which is right next door, got its name from the colossal statue of Nero that used to stand nearby. There's also a hilarious scene in Monty Python's Life of Brian featuring domus, involving a Roman centurion giving the title character an impromptu Latin lesson as he corrects the grammar of Brian's "Romans Go Home" graffiti.

With domus as its root, Romans used the word domesticus for objects and tasks related to the household, and after a trip through the French domestique, English got domestic. We use it to refer to things around the house, and also as the opposite of foreign: as in the Gross Domestic Product, our total national economic output. A well-known example is in the preamble of the U.S. Constitution, as part of the phrase domestic tranquility. Domicilium also comes from domus, and that's where we get domicile, another word for residence or home.

Dominus, meaning "lord" or "master," comes from domus, and was the title given to the head of a Roman household. Dominium means "property" or "ownership," and that's where we get domain and dominion. These two closely related words are often used to describe an area under the control of a king or other ruler. And dominate means "to rule over" or "control by mastery," which is what a monarch or dictator does. Condominium means "ruling together" or "joint sovereignty," which makes sense for a building where multiple families own apartments under one roof: each unit is its own little kingdom.

So as you survey your own domain — touring your domicile as you stroll from the kitchen through the living room and then back through the kitchen, stopping in the bathroom to make sure you're Zoom-worthy and then once more through the kitchen before giving up and returning to your computer to learn some vocabulary — take a minute to appreciate how a house, a basic human need, is so universal that billions of people have a similar word for it.

We're running down the origins of some pandemic-related words. Here are a few more:

It's Everywhere You Don't Want To Be: "Pandemic"

Scion O' The Times: The Origins of "Inoculate"

Going Viral: The Origins of Contagious

40 Days of Solitude: The Origin Story of Quarantine

What's Old Is New Again: The Roots of Novel

A Shot in the Arm: The Origins of "Vaccine"

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After 20 years as a painter, Peter Barrett escaped the art world for the wilds of upstate New York, where he took up cooking, gardening, photography, and writing. In addition to regularly contributing "News" and "Just for Fun" content for Vocabulary.com, he writes for his own blog and several magazines. When he's not cooking or writing about cooking, he plays a lot of guitar and tends a vegetable garden that's visible from space. Click here to read more articles by Peter Barrett.

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Comments from our users:

Monday April 27th 2020, 8:55 PM
Comment by: ShAdOw_XD ⚑πŸ”₯🌊 (CA)Top 10 Commenter
Thank you! Now I know one more root!
Tuesday April 28th 2020, 8:03 AM
Comment by: Mr.Smart (Australia)
Good that.
Another base root to learn...
Thursday May 28th 2020, 1:59 PM
Comment by: Alice M.
is demesne (which is somehow pronounced the same as domain) from the same root? how are they different?
Monday June 8th 2020, 5:19 PM
Comment by: ShAdOw_XD ⚑πŸ”₯🌊 (CA)Top 10 Commenter
Alice M. - hmm I'm bewildered about that too... dem- means ppl (when I searched up on the internet) and dom- means house...
Friday June 12th 2020, 10:44 AM
Comment by: Always VictoryπŸ† (Japan)
It is a homonym. Just like pear and pair.
Sunday August 9th 2020, 2:46 AM
Comment by: Mr. Pratanu Banerjee (India)
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