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If you look at census records from the 1920s and before, dorm residents in schools, seminaries, and institutions are referred to as "inmates." The term, then, was not limited just to prisons as today. How did the association of the word to prisons only, evolve? Has this evolved usage made the former, broader definition obsolete or inappropriate?

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Not exclusive to prisons yet, asylums still contain inmates: (June 2013) "Exclusive: Where the inmates really do run the asylum" boingboing.net/2013/06/04/exclusive-where-the-inmates-r.html –  Wayfaring Stranger Jun 6 '13 at 20:36
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It wasn't limited to institutions, either; in literature from the 19th and early 20th centuries, you commonly see inmates used to refer to the residents of any house. –  Nate Eldredge Jun 7 '13 at 1:55
    
The presumption, "limited just to prisons as today" is incorrect. And that makes the question rather preposterous. –  Kris Jun 7 '13 at 7:04
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1 Answer

up vote 7 down vote accepted

Perhaps the simplest way to observe the evolution of inmate is to note the definitions that dictionaries have assigned to the term through the years. Here are the relevant ones that I have at hand.

From Samuel Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language (1756):

Inmates are those that be admitted to dwell for their money jointly with another man.

From Noah Webster's Compendious Dictionary of the English Language (1806):

a lodger, one who lives in the same house.

From Webster's American Dictionary of the English Language (1828):

A person who lodges or dwells in the same house with another, occupying different rooms, but using the same door for passing in and out of the house.

2. A lodger; one who lives with a family, but is not otherwise connected with it than as a lodger.

From Merriam-Webster's American Dictionary of the English Language (1864):

A person who lodges or dwells in the same apartment or house with another; a fellow-lodger.

From Joseph Worcester's Comprehensive Dictionary, Revised Edition (1873):

One who dwells jointly with another; a fellow-lodger; a fellow-boarder.

From Merriam-Webster's International Dictionary (1890):

One who lives in the same house or apartment with another; a fellow lodger; esp., one of the occupants of an asylum, hospital, or prison; by extension, one who occupies or lodges in any place or dwelling.

From Merriam-Webster's First Collegiate Dictionary (1898):

A fellow lodger; esp. an occupant of an asylum, prison, etc.; also, one who occupies or lodges in any place.

From Merriam-Webster's Third Collegiate Dictionary (1916):

1. One who lives in the same house or apartment with another. 2. One of a family or community occupying a single dwelling; also, one kept in an asylum, prison, etc. 3. An inhabitant.

From Merriam-Webster's Fifth Collegiate Dictionary (1936):

1. One who lives in the same house or apartment with another. 2. One of a family or community occupying a single dwelling or home; now esp., one kept in an institution. 3. An inhabitant.

From Merriam-Webster's Seventh Collegiate Dictionary (1963):

one of a family or other group occupying a single residence; esp: a person confined in an asylum, prison, or poorhouse

The definition of inmate has changed very little in the four subsequent editions of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary series.

Evidently the biggest shift in popular understanding of the term (in the United States) occurred between 1864 and 1890, when the sense of "lodger" was supplemented with a new meaning: "one of the occupants of an asylum, hospital, or prison."

I note, too, that the terms roommate (dated to 1770) and housemate (dated to circa 1810) made their Merriam-Webster's debuts in the 1890 International Dictionary and the 1973 Eighth Collegiate, respectively.

As a way of referring to a lodger or paying housemate, I think, the term inmate is virtually obsolete today. That sense of the word has simply been overwhelmed by the meaning "incarcerated or otherwise institutionalized occupant."

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I wonder if there was some word that inmate displaced when it acquired this new meaning? –  starwed Jun 7 '13 at 6:55
    
It doesn't seem you have attributed the meaning "incarcerated or otherwise institutionalized occupant" to any source yet. Or am I missing something? –  Kris Jun 7 '13 at 7:07
    
@Kris The last five quotes mention that with especially. –  Andrew Leach Jun 7 '13 at 7:16
    
Also @AndrewLeach That is counter to the OP's argument. Furthermore, the answer says nothing on the how. Or am I missing something again? –  Kris Jun 7 '13 at 7:23
    
The phrase "incarcerated or otherwise institutionalized occupant" is my own formulation based on "one of the occupants of an asylum, hospital, or prison" (from 1890) and subsequent, differently worded versions of this definition; I put it into quotation marks not to ascribe it to someone else, but to distinguish it from the rest of the sentence as a definition. The original poster asked how the meaning of inmate evolved, and my answer attempts to trace the evolution; I don't pretend to know why the extension of inmate to refer specifically to an institutionalized occupant occurred. –  Sven Yargs Jun 7 '13 at 16:38
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