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House vs. Home


ISSUE:  Winter 2016

A house is not a home. It is but a pile of sticks. “‘Home is,” on the other hand, as Robert Frost famously said, “the place where, when you have to go there, / They have to take you in.’” Less well known, and more resonant, are the words that follow: “‘I should have called it / Something you somehow haven’t to deserve.’”

The English word home is an old one, dating back more than a thousand years and originating in a cluster of Germanic words whose meanings range from farm to village to the whole world, and whose semantic domain embraces the overall idea that within its bound-aries lie security and safety, things we all need and deserve.

Linguists have long remarked that the English idea of home has no true equivalents, even within cognate languages; by that argument, a German’s heim and a Swede’s hem do not completely trace the English word. In fact, in a linguistic Venn diagram there would be some overlap: In all those instances, a home is a place in which one belongs. Still, though heim or hem evoke warmth, they don’t carry all the emotional weight of the English. A man’s home may be his castle in London or Los Angeles, that is to say, but his heim is not necessarily his schloss in Lucerne or Luxembourg.

The same is true of the Spanish querencia, that small portion of a corral or bullring from which a bull can see anything that’s coming toward it, whether cow or matador, and in that safe place feels something on the order of what we mean when we say “at home.” That prime bovine real estate takes its name from the Spanish word for “to love,” querer, which in turn comes from the Latin quaerere, “to seek,” the source of our words quest and inquire. A querencia—a term that turns up in the bilingual lingo of the southwestern borderlands of the US to mean some beloved locale, and one that I wish were more broadly at home elsewhere in English—is, in short, a place that we search out.

To trust Ernest Hemingway, it is also a place that we fight to defend, “a place which develops in the course of the fight where the bull makes his home.” Just so, “home” is a place we seek out, long to return to when away, and fiercely defend, whether against invaders or from the snooty outsider who tells us that any place is better than the one in which we live: “Schenectady? Yech!”

Our hearts dwell in our homes, and, by extension, our homelands, though the latter word has taken on a vaguely totalitarian air since being put to work in the near tautological expression “homeland security,” that is, making secure the place in which we feel secure. Unless we are gifted with a talent for metempsychosis or astral projection, our bodies dwell there as well. The difference is that we can inhabit a house or its cousins—apartment, trailer, hotel room—and not be remotely at home. The root of “house,” in fact, embraces the sense of hiding, but not necessarily of belonging. Hitting the mattresses is one thing, but finding a querencia there is quite another. 

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