Home is where the hearth is

Eleanor Jolliffe

An Englishman might think his home is a castle but language suggests we’re happier living less isolated lives

In ancient Rome the tugurium Romuli sat on the Palatine Hill, a small thatched hut considered by tradition to be the home of Rome’s founder, Romulus. Vitruvius used it to speculate on the origins of architecture, and considered it the essence of home – a group of people warming themselves in the wilderness, talking around a fire. Home, he felt, was not the marbled extravagance of the building, it was something more.

Both the Spanish and Portuguese languages follow Vitruvius’ attitude towards the fireplace idyll, taking their word for home (hogar and lar respectively) from the Latin root “focus”, meaning hearth or fireplace.

The formation of language can often reveal clues to social attitudes. The hearth associations in the word home are not unique to Latin root languages. Follow the etymology of the English word home and you end up in a tangle of Indo-European words: Gothic “haims”, Old Icelandic “heimer” and Old English “ham”, that coalesce around the common meaning of a piece of pastured land, owned and dwelt in by a community. The modern Swedish (hem) and Norwegian/Danish (hjem) words for home also come from this root.

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