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In the US, being roommates doesn't imply sharing the room. (Note: this question isn't about the situation where people share sleeping quarters, such as in a dormitory with separate beds but just one room - the term roommate is descriptive there. It's about the situation where the people don't share sleeping quarters but do share the rest of the house or apartment.)

In the UK, the term "roommate" means a person living in the same bedroom, whereas in the United States and Canada, "roommate" and "housemate" are used interchangeably regardless whether a bedroom is shared, although it is common in US universities that having a roommate implies sharing a room together. - wikipedia

How did the term roommate come to mean someone who shares a house but not the room?

Things I've checked:

  • An EL&U search threw up a question on the etymology of the -mate suffix; I'm interested in the etymology of the room- part.

  • I also found a question about using the term roommate in an office setting; my question is about the standard domestic setting.

  • Etymonline's entry for roommate is rather plain, simply listing room and mate as the roots. The entry for room is somewhat more illuminating, but the noun entry seems to point to a contiguous space, whereas the US usage of roommate relates to sharing a divided space (a house).

  • Wikidiff, ODO and M-W don't add much beyond the basic definition of the term.

So if North American roommates don't share the room, where does the room- prefix come from? The closest justification I've come across talks about shared living spaces: living room, dining room, kitchen, etc, but that doesn't seem to go far enough, except in the generic and unidiomatic sense that everyone who happens to be in a 'room' of any description are 'roommates' - ballroom, restaurant, waiting room, etc.

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    Living with someone else is usually first encountered in college when it really is a room that is being shared. Once that idea is fixed in the brain it then doesn't matter if it's a house or a room- they're roommates. Having said that I know plenty of people in the US who say housemate not roommate. And that starts in college too, when those rich enough (or senior enough) to afford to live off campus lord it over those who have to stay in the dorms. – Jim Sep 7 '18 at 3:43
  • Well, I wouldn't call someone a "housemate" unless they shared an actual house. What do Brits call two people who share an apartment? – Azor Ahai Sep 7 '18 at 3:55
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    I suspect it helps that roommate is just easier/more satisfying to say than housemate – and much, much better than apartmentmate, which is probably a more common relationship than housemate. @AzorAhai I would guess that people in the UK say flatmates. – 1006a Sep 7 '18 at 4:00
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    @AzorAhai ‘Flatmates’ – Spagirl Sep 7 '18 at 7:48
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    @Lawrence - if a “room” becomes a metaphor for a “living space” it may well refers to a flat, a house etc; Room means also “space”. Also to room: "to occupy rooms" (especially with another) as a lodger," 1828 Etymonline. – user240918 Sep 7 '18 at 9:42
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When I was in college and graduate school, a roommate was definitely a person with whom one shared a room. Students rarely shared houses in those days, and when they did, they were called housemates. The word roommates is still used to mean persons sharing a room, as these selected quotes from the Oxford English Dictionary show:

1849 W. S. Mayo Kaloolah (1850) 107 My interesting room-mates were so far recovered as to be able to take the air upon deck.

1873 C. M. Yonge Pillars of House III. xxx. 170 The room and the room-mate that had seemed so disgusting to home-bred Felix.

1912 A. Brazil New Girl at St. Chad's i. 19 One of my room-mates snored atrociously.

2004 A. Robbins Pledged 16 On the fourth floor, the sophomores' floor, Vicki headed to the tiny room she would be sharing with three roommates.

I selected only the quotations where roommate unambiguously meant person sharing a room, although the snorer might be able to make himself heard throughout a house.

The first quotation the OED gives for roommate is from 1789. The OED defines roommate as:

orig. N. Amer. A person occupying the same room, flat, or house as another

In contrast, the OED definition for housemate and all its quotations mean a person sharing a house with another. For example:

2004 C. Kettlewell Electric Dreams 11 He..was looking forward to shorts and a T-shirt and maybe a cold beer at home, and laughing it over with his new housemate.

Of course, that quotation could be from a UK source. The first use of housemate in a quotation from the OED is 1593.

I'm afraid this hasn't got you very far forward with your question as to how roommate took over housemate in the US -- and to a certain extent in the UK, as shown by the OED definition of roommate.

My own speculation -- and it is just a speculation -- is that many people have roommates in college (i.e., share a room) and they just keep that word when they graduate, so to speak, to sharing a house.

Suite-mate is also used. OED:

suitemate n. chiefly U.S. a person with whom one shares a suite in a college or university residence hall (cf. roommate n.).......

..... 2003 Jrnl. Hist. Sexuality 12 207 His suitemates complained about living with someone who identified as bisexual.

  • That's interesting. I didn't intend to imply that 'roommates' doesn't apply in the US to those who actually do share a room, but your suggestion sounds promising: that the term started from a literal description and generalised later to those sharing a house. – Lawrence Sep 7 '18 at 3:16
  • I believe the U.S. sitcom Three's Company (1977–84) used the term roommate to describe the living situation of the main characters, who split an apartment; the two women share a bedroom but the man has his own. I haven't seen an episode in so long, however, I can't be certain, and might just be thinking of capsule descriptions written in later years. – choster Sep 7 '18 at 16:41
  • @choster OMG it was called "Man About the House" in the 1970's Brit sitcom but I don't think the two girls actually shared the same bedroom. I think they were all called "flatmates". Don't forget "Friends" there were two characters sharing two different apartments and paying rent: Joey with Chandler and Rachel with Monica. – Mari-Lou A Sep 9 '18 at 8:34
  • Fun fact, not only was Three's Company based on Man About the House, but its spinoff about the landlords, The Ropers, was based on the latter's spinoff about the landlords, George & Mildred. But I brought it up because some have suggested roommate for people sharing living quarters is a more recent phenomenon, and a 3C script could establish earlier popular usage than Friends. Did Laverne & Shirley share a bedroom? – choster Sep 9 '18 at 14:48
  • I think in Angela Brazil's "New Girl at St Chad's" the snorer can be assumed to be herself. – TimLymington Sep 10 '18 at 19:14
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The shared use of living space seems correct to me. And, given that, I would say that the North American use of roommate certainly does mean sharing one or more rooms.

The Merriam-Webster definition of roommate is:

: one of two or more persons sharing the same room or living quarters.

However, it doesn't need to apply to every room and it certainly doesn't apply to the bedroom specifically.

Although I will note that some university dormitories (or at least as popularized on TV and in movies) do have a single room with two "sides"—each of which has a bed. Roommates in these living quarters share the room—even if they sleep in separate beds. Such single-room dwellings were more prevalent in the past too.


As for public spaces such as restaurants, people there aren't roommates because none of them live there.

But in E.L. Konigsburg's award-winning children's book From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, a brother and sister end up running away from home and "living" in a museum. They could arguably have been called roommates when they were there. Even though they didn't sleep in the same room.


As a kind of counter question, I would be interested in knowing how the British use of roommate ended up having the specific meaning of "bedroommate" when there are so many other rooms.


Update

Here are some additional notes:

  • In North America, it seems the closest equivalent of the UK's roommate (and what I somewhat jokingly referred to as "bedroommate") is bunkmate. Rather than using the generic word room (which can refer to any room rather than a specific room) the word bunk is used—which carries the particular meaning of "bed". (It's commonly used in relation to the military, but can also be used in such situations as camping or other accommodation. It means "sharing a bedroom," even though not in a romantic sense.)

  • In short, it seems that housemate and roommate (UK) can translate to roommate and bunkmate (US).

  • We have the expression share a room, which, as a phrase, does suggest a romantic involvement with someone. But it's something quite distinct from a discussion of the word room and how it came to be collocated with mate to form roommate. Saying "I'm going to get a room" means something quite different from "you two should get a room." And even when I say, "I'm going to get a room," it normally means a hotel room—which can include more than just a bedroom. In fact, for people who end up with a sudden windfall and who decide to "get a room" at a fancy hotel, what they generally mean is that they are going to get a suite.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – MetaEd Sep 7 '18 at 16:30

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