In a Word: Jesus Was Born in a Penthouse

Today, staying in the penthouse suite is a signal that you’re living the high life, but the word comes from lower origins.

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Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.

Every Christmas, Christians around the world retell — and often reenact — the story of Jesus’ birth in a stable in Bethlehem. But during the 15th century, the Christmas story was just as likely to have Jesus born in a penthouse as in a stable.

Today we think of a penthouse as a place of luxury, a suite that sits at the top of a tall apartment building, offering the best views and commanding the highest rent. But skyscrapers didn’t start appearing in cities until the 1880s, and by then, the word penthouse had been around for nearly four centuries.

In Old French, the word apentis meant “attached building” or “appendage.” This goes back to the Latin verb appendere “to cause to hang from something,” which derives from pendere “to hang” or “weight.” (The words appendix, pendant, and stipend were grown from the same roots.)

In the 1300s, apentis entered Middle English as pentis to describe a small structure with a sloping roof that was attached to a larger building, what today we might call a lean-to. It was the type of structure where you’d keep tools, animals, or hay, not celebrities.

The word pentis evolved, by the early 16th century, into penthouse through folk etymology — the process by which lesser-known or misunderstood parts of a word are replaced by something more common. (For example, folk etymology changed the Old English suffix –lac into the –lock in wedlock.) The updated spelling makes sense, too: A small shed attached to one’s house could still be considered part of the house, so having –house in the name just seems natural.

For more than 300 years, a penthouse continued to be a smaller structure attached to the side of a larger building. There are even Middle English Christmas homilies that place Jesus’ birth in a penthouse. (Manger, which for many of us is a word used only during Christmas, is a trough from which animals are fed. It describes the makeshift cradle in which Jesus was lain, not the building that surrounded him.)

It wasn’t until after World War I — when cities began building upward as much as outward — that the penthouse moved from the side of the building to the top, and we began to use it to describe a posh, top-level apartment. The word’s original meaning is now little more than a relic.

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