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In American English (perhaps British as well), "housework" and "homework" have different meanings. "Housework" refers to working around the house, such as dusting, vacuuming, etc., whereas "homework" refers to doing some school assignments at home, after school is out.

Homework can be completed outside the home, such as in a library. In order to do housework, however, one must be at one's house. How and when did two words which seem so similar at first glance gain such different meanings?

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It might be interesting for you to know that I didn't find any entry in the OED regarding "housework". It is weird since I know the word exists. –  Alenanno Apr 3 '11 at 17:35
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Maybe the Brits don't do houseworks! But how they've managed to keep their mansions & chesterfields so pristine is beyond me. Mm. –  Percy P. Apr 3 '11 at 17:41
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We Brits invented 'housework'! Along with a rigid class system to make sure it was only done by scullery maids & other lesser mortals, leaving the lady of the house to concentrate of receiving 'gentleman callers'. But I never heard of anyone so grand they needed to pluralise the efforts others make on their behalf. –  FumbleFingers Apr 3 '11 at 17:48
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And originally in English public schools (which are private) homework wouldn't be done at home (since they were boarders) but in your house - but wasn't called homework it was called prep. Great language! - for an encore we will explain cricket –  mgb Apr 3 '11 at 18:09
    
Once I finish this post, I will go back to "working from home", which interestingly refers to a paid job, and is neither housework nor homework. –  Jay May 1 '12 at 18:01

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▶ Homework

According to the OED, the original meaning of "homework" does conflate much more obviously with "housework," with the former being defined, above all, as:

Work done at home, esp. as distinguished from work done in a shop or factory.

The earliest citation is a hearty piece of precious advice from a sermon from the 1680s:

Wherefore let every Man, in the first place, look after his Homework; what he hath to do at Home.

Less vague examples of homework were given in later quotes: Spinning, quilting, and embroidery. This crafty and practical usage seems, however, to be an obsolescent meaning of homework, with the last use from the '30s. But the word "home worker" (doing low-paying piecework) lives on, preserving this original meaning of "homework":

Most home workers are women. They need the flexibility of working hours that home work allows. (Guardian, 1973)

The second—and now primary—meaning of "review/preparatory school work despised by youth" didn't appear until much later (late 19th century), but it's thriving and strong, having quickly overtaken the original meaning.


▶ Housework

The first citation of "house-work" from the OED (which hyphenates it) is from mid-19th century. Its meaning has always been as it is now: "the work done to keep a house orderly (and housewares clean)," diligently by housewives and begrudgingly by house-servants:

While the boys are engaged in out-door work, the girls could be employed in sewing or house-work. (Report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, 1871)

Here it contrasts homework (sewing) with housework [other activities].

As FumbleFingers's Ngram shows, it has also been used in texts in its unhyphenated form, which the OED has chosen not to include, as Alenanno first noted above in the comments, although it does feature a sub-entry for the spaced "house work" (definition-less, with a single late-19th-century quote).

So the two words would seem to have diverged after the first (homework) took on a specialized meaning relatively late in its life. Now let's find the courage to get back to doing either/both!

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So you did found it in the OED? –  Alenanno Apr 3 '11 at 22:56
    
Aye, but not as "housework," but as "house-work" and "house work." The Brits prefer 'em hyphens & spaces, it seems. –  Percy P. Apr 3 '11 at 23:38
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I did find it as "housework" at dictionary.reference.com/browse/housework. I do believe American English tends to lose the hyphens in words more quickly than British English, but I am no linguis. That is just speculation. –  ssakl Apr 4 '11 at 15:21

I think it's pretty clear housework came first, as shown by this. Apart from anything else, the activity now called homework probably didn't actually occur very often in a world where many children either didn't go to school at all, or had limited access to books, writing materials, etc. at home.

But it's worth mentioning that some (non-working) women who don't really like to call themselves (or be called) a 'housewife' will accept 'home-maker'. There are various subtle differences between house and home, but they're pretty much the same thing in most contexts, notwithstanding the 1964 song A House Is Not a Home.

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This 'subtle difference' in particular is one that I have always found very interesting. It makes the English language appear quite sweet (Home suggests 'family' - a 'lived-in' house). Many other languages don't have this same distinction, though they interestingly are both of Germanic origin. –  Karl Apr 3 '11 at 18:58

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