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.
A hundred years ago, if you told someone you lived in a condominium, they might ask if you were from the New Hebrides, an island group northeast of Australia. That’s because the modern condominium — an apartment that is owned rather than rented — didn’t appear until the late 1950s. Before that (and still today), condominium was a term of international law that referred to a territory ruled jointly and equally by multiple sovereignties. The New Hebrides, for example, were jointly controlled by the French and British governments throughout most of the 20th century.
The word condominium comes from the Latin prefix com- “with, together” (which becomes con- before a D) plus dominium “property, right of ownership,” the source of the word dominion.
How did condominium make the journey from an entire owned-together-land to the modern living space? It makes sense if you think not of a single condo but of the entire building that dwelling is part of. That building is equally and jointly owned by the individual homeowners in much the same way a string of islands might be equally “owned” by multiple governments.
Condominium makes etymological sense for the name of an owned apartment, too, if you take its roots back even further. That Latin dominium derives from dominus “lord, master,” which comes from domus “house” — also the source of domicile and domestic. So a condominium is not only a jointly owned dominion, but, since the late 1950s, a jointly owned house.
As for that one-time condominium called New Hebrides, its people achieved independence in 1980 and renamed their domain the Republic of Vanuatu. And I bet they have some great condos on the beach.
Featured image: Shutterstock
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