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Room-mates

July 15th, 2006

In my dialect of English, shared living arrangements (normally non-familial) can be described by three terms.
A housemate (or flatmate) is someone who shares your house (normally not your room, but this is open)
A roommate is someone who shares your room (normally not your bed)
A bedmate is self-explanatory.

In US English, “roommate” seems to cover all three, but US English speakers seem able to infer which is intended from the context. Can anyone help me with a usage guide?

I came to this point after reading an NYT article on urban dorms about a woman in NY, who is helping young professionals lower their cost of NY City living by matching them with “roommates”. This sounded pretty challenging until it became apparent that everyone gets their own room. Not that putting together a workable group to share a house isn’t a problem, but it’s one that most people in my age cohort dealt with repeatedly on their own, admittedly with varying degrees of success. So to me, the take-home point would have been the professionalisation of yet another activity people previously did for themselves, rather than the fact that when rents are high relative to income, groups of unrelated people share houses (wasn’t there a popular TV show about this a few years back?).

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  1. Jeffrey Miller
    July 15th, 2006 at 07:56 | #1

    In the U.S, “roommate” almost always means “someone you share an apartment or house with”. If you’re talking to a collge student, you might reasonably guess that their roommate literally shares a dorm room with them. Otherwise, roomate just means what you mean by flatmate. It would be unusual for some to describe a “bedmate” as a roommate – you’d probably only call someone a “roommate” in this context if you didn’t want to reveal
    your true relationship.

  2. Ruth Walker
    July 15th, 2006 at 09:18 | #2

    When I moved to a college town in the midwest, I decided to rent extra rooms in my house to students. My eldest grown daughter asked about my “boarders” but I quickly informed her that I had roomers, not boarders, as I provided only rooms, not board (meals). The students called us roomies.

    http://www.m-w.com/dictionary/roomer
    roomer: one who occupies a rented room in another’s house

    http://www.m-w.com/dictionary/roommate
    roommate: one of two or more persons sharing the same room or living quarters — called also room·ie

  3. Tony Healy
    July 15th, 2006 at 11:36 | #3

    The US use of the term room mate to describe what we would call a flatmate probably derives from the tendency for US students to live away from home, in colleges. In that context, many do share with a room mate in the same room, for their early years at least.

    Thus the use of the term room-mate has broadened to include anyone sharing living arrangements, including what we would call flat-mates.

    On the subject of professionalising of seemingly trivial affairs, the one that gets me is the use of personal trainers. People can’t go for a run or do some exercise unless they pay someone to be with them.

  4. July 15th, 2006 at 12:36 | #4

    Exercising is a matter of individual choice. I had a conversation with two other people about exercise and we each had a different view. One felt they needed a person trainer for motivation, one felt they needed a group of friends for the social aspect of it and one felt it needed to be part of their daily routine and not given any special consideration. So long as we all stay healthy, does it matter which works best for whom?

  5. Tony Healy
    July 15th, 2006 at 13:38 | #5

    I don’t think something has to matter for it to be something that can be commented on. Just as Pr Q comments on the usage of the term room-mate.

    That said, the development of the personal training industry is an interesting sociological study, and it also has negative externalities.

    For example, in Sydney, the commercialisation of outdoors exercise has resulting in trainers roping off parts of beaches and parks and denying them to other users. This became so blatant that the worst-affected councils introduced regulations restricting the practice and forcing trainers to obtain licences.

  6. July 15th, 2006 at 15:54 | #6

    Yep, the US usage of “room-mate”, in conflating house-sharing with room-sharing, is pretty weird.

    But so is “casual” (= with strangers) house-sharing, when you think about it. Up until c.1970, parties to such arrangements were known as boarders/lodgers, or sub-tenants (the difference here would seem to be that the former applied if the counter-party owned the property, while the latter if the counter-party merely rented).

    What changed in the 70s didn’t involve a shift in the law, nor did it involve a fundamental economic move. (Between at least WWII and 1970, housing was consistently scarce and/or expensive). There *was* a cultural shift though, of course, under which one’s being a boarder/lodger/sub-tenant smacked of being exploited, while the substitute arrangement – being equal “sharers� – connoted a virtuous polar opposite.

    But apart from this terminological and ideological shift, nothing else changed, as I’ve said. Even the purest possible form of equal house-sharing – a lease to which all residents are party to, with a third-party owner – is legally vague and unsatisfactory in practice. Mere co-tenancy – as opposed to relational law, such as marriage/de-facto law – gives few or no property rights, when push comes to shove.

    Why so many people in the West nonetheless persist with “casual” house-sharing arrangements seems to me to be due to a lingering, if stale hippy/boomer idealism. Despite the original (70s) house-sharing generation now being far more likely to be landlords than co-tenants/sharers, young(er) people are reluctant to re-employ terms such as “lodgerâ€?, even though, in substance, that is what their living arrangement often plainly is.

  7. July 15th, 2006 at 18:50 | #7

    “I don’t think something has to matter for it to be something that can be commented on. Just as Pr Q comments on the usage of the term room-mate”.

    Well, I agree with that!

    And I’d like to add personal shoppers to the list of professionalised activities. Entrepreneur.com offers tips on how to start up in this demanding yet rewarding profession http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/0,4621,319274,00.html

  8. Tanya
    July 16th, 2006 at 05:13 | #8

    Ah, Paul … the main reason why people share is because it is so much cheaper than living alone, especially if one wants/needs to live in the inner-city. Sure, some folk enjoy the social aspect but it’s mostly about money …. especially since the rise in house prices. Most ‘room-mates’, ‘house-mates’, or whatever are in their 20s and 30s – they’re not hippies and an awful lot of their boomer parents were/are not hippies. And the way that they arrange their households represents nothing like boarding … most of these people don’t share a salt-shaker let alone pay one of their housemates to buy food and cook it in the way that a traditional landlord would. Sure, one person may be more responsible than another in a household but it is rare that there would be any payment for that additional responsibility.

    More generally, one aspect of share-households in the US is that subletting is very common – especially in big university towns. I live in Boston and every time that I have gone home to Australia, I have had a subletter in my room for between three weeks and three months at a time. It is a great way to save money (3 months rent saved equals one airfare to the Sunshine Coast!) and my roommates are happy to have the right person (usually a visiting doc student from an out of town uni) stay for a short time. The free classifieds website, craigslist.com, has made this much easier and is an interesting example of trust-building through on-line interaction.

  9. July 16th, 2006 at 12:11 | #9

    Tanya,

    I do understand that most share-house arrangements these days are food-exclusive – this is certainly different from the 70s norm (the “gold standardâ€?, of such arrangements), which was kinda my point. On the food point, perhaps I should have above clarified, for GenYers’ benefit, the boarder/lodger distinction – the former is usually food-inclusive, the latter food-exclusive.

    So again, why the current reticence about using the L-word? Especially given your mention of the common-ness of sub-letting, I’m not convinced that its being an “interesting example of trust-building through on-line interaction� marks such arrangements as sui generis, particularly in terms of legal enforceability.

    Also, I’m well aware that most current (= post-boomer) house-mates are not hippies – again, this was rather my point. As far as “an awful lot of their boomer parents were/are not hippies� also, there are two errors here. The first is that there is actually a distinct generation (born ~ 1963-1978) who are neither boomers nor (in most cases) the offspring of such (FWIW, nor are they even siblings of boomers, quite often). Secondly, I was referring to the house-sharing subset of the boomer generation. If you can demonstrate that it was culturally widepread in the 70s for young house-sharers to have separate lentil-stashes etc, then I’ll retract the “70s’ house-sharer = hippie� equation. Otherwise, I think it’s a fair call.

  10. Tom N.
    July 17th, 2006 at 12:42 | #10

    OPTIMAL OBFUSCATION and THE THEORY OF PARALLEL MONOGAMY

    Whatever its precise meaning, the euphemistic use of the term ‘housemate’, in place of ‘bedmate’, ‘friend with benefits’, ‘****buddy’ … or ‘spouse’, can clearly be helpful for the purpose of engaging in parallel monogamy.

    Of course, parallel monogamy (simaltenously having two or more fully committed, one-to-one, full on, open palmed, loving relationships) is most ethical when undertaken with full disclosure to all parties involved. In such cases, the need for obfuscatory descriptions of the status of one’s sexual partners should not arise.

    In principle, such needs also should not arise in the context of serial monogamy (sequential relationships with single partners) or terminal monogamy (marraige), although in the latter case I understand that for many the use of the term bedmate may also be misleading insofar as it is taken to imply that sexual congress with said person may be a not infrequent occurrence.

    However, in a second best world, and for those who value diversity, having ‘just a housemate’ can be most useful.

  11. July 17th, 2006 at 13:26 | #11

    Tom N,
    I would have thought that a more correct term for parallel monogamy would have been bigamy, where there are two relationships, trigamy where there are three or, where there are more than three, multigamy. Monogamy, by its very definition, (IMHO) should be thought of so as to exclude more than one relationship being carried on at once.
    .
    On the main point, I would tend to agree with Paul Watson on the linguistics – to me at least, the reason for the change of name is simply that “room-mate”, “roomie” or “house-mate” are socially acceptable (“cool”), whereas “lodger” and the other terms are not. If in that situation, I would much rather describe myself as a “house-mate” than a “lodger”.

  12. Youie
    July 17th, 2006 at 15:39 | #12

    I live in a shared house with two mates (ie, our friendship predates our cohabitation). We describe ourselves, and each other, as housemates, for that is what we are. Room-mates sounds quaintly (and anachronistically) British, and none of us are lodgers because we’re not living with the house’s owners. When the times call for a fourth person to take the spare room, we stick a notice up at the local shopping centre and wait for the calls to flood in – it’s much more efficient than sticking an ad on Flatmates (Australia-based website) because it’s fairly certain that the majority of people who are likely to see the ad are already living in our suburb or general area. And, with a slightly sniffy air, might I say that they’re the kind of people we’d want to move in with us rather than people from (*disparaging sigh*) Perth’s outer suburbs… Flatmates is a free service, and it’s undoubtedly useful, but I guess we’re a little old-fashioned in how we prefer to handle the involvement of third parties in what is ultimately a two-party affair.

  13. Tom N.
    July 17th, 2006 at 22:13 | #13

    CUNNING LINGUISTIC SKILLS

    The question is not whether bigamy is the ‘more correct’ term, Andrew; the question is whether it is the fitter for the purpose, which in this case is to reduce barriers to entry, encourage horizontal integration and thereby facilitate movement towards the bliss point, to put it in the economic parlance appropriate for this blogsite. In this context, use of the term ‘parallel monogamy’ has the benefits of not only discharging one’s disclosure requirements, albeit in a somewhat obfuscatory manner, but also elevating the practice to a higher spiritual plane.

  14. Mark Hadfield
    July 19th, 2006 at 08:27 | #14

    The only question that interests me about bigamy is why anyone could think it reasonable to call it “parallel monogamy”. That’s like calling a bicycle an in-line unicycle or a 4-wheeled farm vehicle a quad bike. Oh wait…

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