It’s been a fairly busy month in language but I haven’t been able stay timely. So many interesting words and usages, so little time! I didn’t want to let a full month slide by without posting on some useful topic so here, on the last day of June, a quick post on something that’s been on the radar a lot in my household in recent months: real estate.
Have you ever stopped to wonder what an odd pair of words they are? “Real estate.” In 21st century English, the phrase is used constantly and everyone knows exactly what it means. But the construction is odd for modern English and each of the two words, taken in isolation, doesn’t mean what it does when they’re together. “Real“? Of course it’s real, as opposed to being fictional or imaginary. “Estate“? Well, some properties might be estate-like, but most real estate transactions hardly involve estates in the traditional sense (an estate usually being a large property in the US; the term is more variable elsewhere, ranging from large properties to public housing projects).
So where does the phrase come from? What did it originally mean, and how did it get to where it is today?
The first solidly recognized use of the phrase is in an English legal document from around 1642. That’s given in the OED (our best source, as neither AHD nor Webster’s provide useful etymology or citations). The phrase might have been used somewhat earlier, and it seems well entrenched by the end of the 17th century. OED’s citations suggest something about how the phrase has evolved over the years: while the definition implies that contemporary use of the phrase is primarily North American and that the simpler “estate” has taken over in the UK, all of the usage citations before the mid-19th century are British (Rudyard Kipling is cited from 1892). It seems to have been a widespread phrase, becoming strongly American only since the start of the 20th century.
If you know a romance language, you might make the easy connection that real in this case is the same “real” found in Spanish as in, for example, “el camino real” — the royal road. Several important highways in parts of the Americas that were once Spanish colonies have this name. That seems etymologically logical, and there is some conjecture that this is where the term comes from, starting from the Latin rex. (You’ll find one such lengthy etymology here. Warning: rambling, elliptical, unsupported, and unfocused conjecture ahead!). In fact, the “royal” source is probably a folk etymology. One clear instance of this dates to 1922 (the explanation, as well as a succinct discussion of “realtor,” can be found here).
The true definition of “real” in real estate is closer to one way real is frequently used today; that is “actual” or “physical.” It comes from Latin, but via res (“thing”) not rex (“king”). In early use, the adjective (“real“) was included to distinguish “real property” from “personal property.” The distinction being that real property was fixed and immovable (a building, the land it was on, etc.) while personal property was not (presumably personal property originally covered what could be moved on or by one’s person, but I haven’t delved into the history to confirm that).
The “estate” portion of the phrase (also ultimately from Latin) is the older partner, recorded in use by the mid 15th century. This definition of estate (among 13 main definitions given by OED) is “having an interest in” (in the legal or financial sense), as shown well by this 1793 citation in OED: “Her estate in the Lighthouse was only for life.” Other than in the phrase real estate, and perhaps in some legal uses, this definition of estate has faded into obscurity.
Now that we know where the two words come from, it’s also clear how they fit together. Real estate is physical and immovable property that someone has an interest (or financial investment) in. Simple, concise, clear.
On a related note, the word “realtor” deserves a couple of quick paragraphs. One of my favorite sources, Garner (GMAU), says nothing about real estate, but points out that realtor is (ahem) a “MORPHOLOGICAL DEFORMITY” (their caps). That’s a technical term meant to indicate that the word is built from morphemes borrowed from another language but violating the word formation rules of either the lending or borrowing language. In this specific case, the suffix (-or) in Latin would only be applied to a verb, but the root (realt-) is not a verb. As GMAU goes on to explain, this is only an interesting technical note because “What is permissible in another language has no bearing on what is permissible in ours.” Where realtor is concerned, GMAU rules that “Its shortness commends it.” Amen.
GMAU (and other sources) point out the not-widely-known fact that “realtor” is a neologism, created from whole cloth in 1916 by the National Association of Realtors and registered as a trademark by them since 1950 (the NAR insists on capitalizing the word and usually puts the little ® symbol behind it). But like kleenex, jello, thermos, aspirin, and a host of words that were once proprietary to a specific product but came to represent a whole class of product, that horse has long left the barn. Although if you’re in the real estate business and try to use realtor generically, you might get into hot water: NAR’s proprietary rights have been legally reaffirmed as recently as 2004. GMAU (and others) also note that pronouncing realtor with three or — god forbid! — four syllables (“reel-i-tor” or the ghastly “re-eel-uh-tor” instead of “reel-tor“) is an abomination (word choice mine). That pronunciation is definitely in the category of “creeping southernism” (a topic for another day) but unfortunately you’ll encounter it to some degree almost everywhere.