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.
Though we expect a widely different set of amenities from a hostel than we do from a hotel, both serve the purpose of giving travelers temporary lodging. And now that I’ve brought them up, you’re probably noticing that hostel and hotel differ by only a single letter. That’s no coincidence; they’re basically the same French word adopted into English at different times.
They both find their roots in the Latin hospes, simultaneously meaning “visitor” and “one who provides lodging or entertainment to a visitor.” Does it seem odd to have one word that names both a guest and a host? Social expectations in ancient Rome called for a bit of reciprocity — if you stayed in someone’s home as a guest, you were expected to serve as host to your former host in your own home at some later date. That expectation of alternating visitor/host roles was reflected in the language.
Later, in Medieval Latin (A.D. 4th-10th century), hospes gave us hospitale meaning “inn, large house.” In Old French, hospitale split into hospital (or ospital) and the contracted hostel (or ostel). Both words could be used to mean “guesthouse, inn”; the former went on to become the English hospital, but the latter, which first appeared in English writings in the early 13th century, retained its meaning. Early English use of hostel wasn’t an indication of the quality or arrangement of the lodgings as it is today.
Meanwhile, something was happening in French. We’ve already seen indication of the French predilection not to pronounce the H at the beginning of a word if it’s followed by a vowel sound. But starting in the 1000s, French and Anglo-French speakers began treating an S before a hard consonant (like a T or a P) as a silent letter. Spelling wasn’t standardized back then, so in writing we find some people retaining that silent S while others dropped it — so what was a hostel to some French writers could be written as hotel by others.
Back in English, though hostel was available, inn remained a solid, shorter word for a place of temporary lodging and entertainment. The word hostel in English essentially died out after the 16th century. But in the 17th century, as rich folk built mansions, they turned again to French for a name for them. Probably unaware of the word’s previous evolution, they adopted the now S-less hotel. Though it was originally used in English to describe a large residence, through the 18th century, the word was increasingly restricted to the type of hotel lodgings we know today.
So English hostel and hotel were both borrowings of the same French word, only at different times — and with different spellings — in the evolution of French. But as hostels go upscale and hotels downsize for a more economical crowd, the difference between the two may be boiling down to bunk beds. Perhaps in the future, hostel and hotel may merge once again into a single concept.
Now, to tie up some loose ends: In France, Cardinal Richelieu created the Académie Française in 1634 as an official council to provide answers to all questions pertaining to the French language. To solve the question of the silent S and to standardize spelling, the Académie officially introduced the circumflex accent in a dictionary of 1740 as a way to eliminate that S but indicate where it once existed. Thus, Modern French has hôtel (from hostel), hôpital (“hospital”), forêt (“forest”), ancêtre (“ancestor”), pâté (“paste”), and a host of others.
And as I mentioned, hostel became obsolete in English after the 16th century. Sir Walter Scott revived the word in his writings starting in 1808, and its meaning evolved again. Youth hostel made its first appearance in print in 1931.
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