I came across the word hovel and I rather like the resonance of it. I'm aware it generally refers negatively to minimal, ramshackle dwellings, but I'm wondering whether or not the word is also politically/emotionally charged? I have no prior context, so just wanted to ask anyone familiar with how it's used more broadly.

Thanks in advance!

  • 1
    Not, just one of poverty. People living in hovels, like some in some of the favelas in Brazil are just very poor.
    – Lambie
    Commented Mar 14, 2019 at 23:51
  • @Lambie The word "hovel", although it has a strict dictionary definition, has a relative meaning in actual use; sometimes one person's hovel is another person's aspirational dwelling. I am confident that there are buildings in the favelas which other people in the same favela look at with a degree of envy even though the inhabitants of the flash apartments overlooking Copacabana beach would call them all "hovels" if they spoke English.
    – BoldBen
    Commented Mar 15, 2019 at 10:05
  • @BoldBen Whatever. Pick any shantytown in the world in any country. That said, favelas have plenty of them. There are richer and poorer ones and also within them there is everything from the barracão (hovel) to actual houses. It depends on whether your favela is "chique" or not. Those Copacabana people would say barração.
    – Lambie
    Commented Mar 15, 2019 at 13:58

3 Answers 3


Many dictionaries mark words in definitions with a descriptive word, such as (archaic), (derogatory), (offensive). I've checked many dictionaries and seen nothing of this sort for "hovel".

However, just because definitions don't have these usage tags doesn't mean it's entirely neutral. To get an idea of whether a word is derogatory or offensive you would either have to get MANY opinions from native speakers, or do your own research of the contexts in which these words are used, while at the same time ensuring that your methodology is sound. As I can't speak for much of that, I've given given definitions to most online dictionaries I have access to to show you that in most cases the definition hints at something negative.

Notice, that in some cases there are multiple definitions, some of which seem neutral, while others are definitely negative. In most cases dictionaries list the more common usage with a lower number. Definitions that aren't numbered are the sole definition of a particular dictionary:

3:a small, wretched, and often dirty house : hut
Merriam-Webster Dictionary

a small home that is dirty and in bad condition
Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary and Thesaurus

1.a small, very humble dwelling house; a wretched hut.
2.any dirty, disorganized dwelling.
Random House Unabridged Dictionary (dictionary.com)

1.A small, miserable dwelling.
American Heritage Dictionary

1.A hovel is a small hut, especially one which is dirty or needs a lot of repair.
2.You describe a house, room, or flat as a hovel to express your disapproval or dislike of it because it is dirty, untidy, and in poor condition.
COBUILD Advanced English Dictionary (Published by Collins)

1.a ramshackle dwelling place
Collins English Dictionary

1A.small squalid or simply constructed dwelling.
Oxford Living Dictionaries
(I encourage you to look at the example sentences at this link, they seem to me to be all used negatively.)

a small dirty place where someone lives, especially a very poor person
Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English

a small and dirty or untidy house
Macmillan Dictionary

The only definitions I could find that didn't have an obviously negative connotation were the ones from Wiktionary.

From what I can tell generally its connotations aren't too flattering, though you can find instances of "hovel" meaning just a small or humble living shelter without the negative association attached to it. Sometimes it's all peasants or poor folk have, and it's their home, and home is a comforting place, generally. By emphasizing the positive attributes you can convey a positive image, which generally isn't one imagined by most people hearing the word alone.


hovel OED

A shed used as a human habitation; a rude or miserable dwelling-place; a wretched cabin

A hovel was used in the fifteenth century to describe a shed used for animals, and by the seventeenth century the word had taken on its current usage as a way to describe a crude human dwelling — though the connotation of a messiness associated with animals still remains. The word can be used literally to describe something that is a ramshackle shack, but you’ll also hear it used with wry humor to describe a person’s modest living quarters: “Well, I’m off to my hovel to get some sleep.” Thus in most cases this sense is not offensive. It could be made so though.

  • 1
    Self-deprecation is still deprecation. I can call my house a hovel with impunity, but I might take offense if you do it and I think it’s not in jest.
    – Jim
    Commented Mar 14, 2019 at 23:54
  • @HotLicks lol corrected
    – lbf
    Commented Mar 15, 2019 at 0:49

Hovel isn't an offensive word in itself, even though it describes a generally unwanted situation, because it's not a commonly used insult like "run down shack" is, and it doesn't carry any negative group meaning with it, like "the projects" and "the ghetto" do.

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