But where do you live?

Sallie Satterthwaite's picture

In your house, I mean. Do you live in the living room or sit in the sitting room? Do you even have a  sitting room? Do you drive on a parkway and park in your driveway, or vice versa?

English, our native lexicon, brags that it encompasses nearly one million words and is the largest in the world. English must thank dozens of other cultures for contributions with meaning and nuance.

For no particular reason, I got to thinking of words or phrases that architects and interior decorators use to suggest that their product is a little bit classier than the next fellow’s.

How many different words can you come up with that are almost interchangeable to describe living room, parlor, whatever you call that room where the family sort of gravitates after dinner? I’ve listed about 17 candidates, not totally alike, but close. Which you choose, I believe, depends on what your parents and grandparents called them. It is also something of a class distinction in Great Britain where classes still flourish.

The most common candidate would probably be the “Great room.” I bet that would not even have been on the radar when I was a kid, but “Parlor” was commonplace back in the day.

My oldest cousin Phyllis lived with her parents and occasionally grandparents in a large stone farmhouse near Carlisle, Pennsylvania. We visited them to keep family ties intact, I guess. I was fascinated with that house, towering atop a small hill with a broad green lawn sloping down out front and a sure ‘nuff working farm behind it. It had a “parlor.” My main memory of that room was that it was off-limits to us kids. Lace doilies, breakable vases, and drawn shades naturally just piqued our curiosity the more. I don’t recall ever being responsible for damage in the parlor, although Aunt Minnie used to get really nervous over the possibility.

So how was it used if our family was disallowed? Well, deceased loved ones were laid out for viewing in the parlor, for one, and bad news was usually read there. No wonder we kids followed the rules.

Here in Georgia we had a pretty traditional house with both a “Family room” and a “Living room,” which was probably underused, since the television was in the family room. Our present house is very open-planned, with one main room separated only by a counter to the kitchen. Our bedroom can be opened or closed off, and my office/library/studio/music room is usually opened.

A term that puzzles me is “Keeping room,” which friends of ours call their family room, a welcoming room that looks very comfortable, and feels that way too, especially with its fireplace lit. I don’t, however, have a clue what they “keep” in there.

As I followed link after link trying to see what other names we heap on this chamber, I was amused to find an explanation for “Drawing room.” We all know that women are so delicate that getting dinner to the table can be utterly exhausting, and a small room near the kitchen may be a haven into which she might withdraw. Not too much of a leap from withdrawing to drawing. Hmmm.

I was also reminded that my mother called our living room“ the “Front room.” It was kept  up, although our dining room was not large and two young kids didn’t have a lot of indoor space to play in, in the Pennsylvania winters. And it was in the front of the house.

Remember “Recreation room,” “Rec room,” and “Rumpus rooms”? The modern era caters to the little kids grown up, offering the “Cave” or “Man-cave.” “Den” and “Lounge” conjure smoky air and men-only atmospheres. “Common room” is innocuous enough, but when was the last time you saw a “Conversation pit” or conversed in one?

What do we use in our own conversation? I try not to feel pretentious calling our main living space the “Great room,” but that’s how the plans are written. Who am I to buck the system?