Ian McMillan: Did I leave my tea in the Room or in the House?

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I’m writing this in the House. I could have written it in the Room but people are watching TV in the Room so I’ve come into the House. That’s what we call our two downstairs rooms: well, three if you count the kitchen. We’ve got the House and the Room. I only recently started thinking how strange these words were when I found myself saying them quite a lot the other day when I’d put my cup of tea down and I couldn’t remember if I’d left it steaming in the House or the Room. And I’m giving the names of these dwelling-spaces capital letters because they seem important. And by the time I found the tea it was cold anyway. It was in the House.

And House and Room feel quite Yorkshire, they feel like the kinds of spaces you could eat parkin in and read the Yorkshire Post in and say words like ‘champion’ and ‘grand’ in. But what about the other words for those areas that estate agents might call ‘living-pods?’ Well, there’s Front Room and Back Room and Other Room. There’s Living Room and Dining Room and Sitting Room and Spare Room and Middle Room and Lounge.

You never heard Lounge when I was younger, mind you; the Lounge was the part of a pub that people might drink Babycham in. You only had a lounge in your house if you were really posh but I’ve noticed that the word Lounge has been creeping in quite a lot lately and even round here people are just as likely to say Lounge these days. I blame those makeover programmes on TV that threaten to turn your Lean-to into Brodsworth Hall before the ad-break. My Scottish relatives would always make reference to a little cottage as a ‘But n Ben’ meaning that it had two rooms; But the Hoose and Ben the Hoose, the Ben being the equivalent of the Room. I think, although I could be wrong because I’m only half-Scots. Whenever I heard them say it when they came to visit, though, I was always in awe of it. A ‘But N Ben’ sounded romantic and mysterious, like something from a fairy tale about woodcutters and wicked witches. It sounded better than Kitchen and Parlour, anyway.

Ah, the Parlour! The word that’s almost faded away now to describe the one semi-extravangant room in a terraced house, the room that was used at funerals and maybe when the doctor came, the room that smelled of polish and perhaps had a picture on the wall, the room that was always cold because there was no point in lighting a fire in the Parlour because nobody ever went in there.

Yes, but what words do we use to describe those parts of our dwellings that aren’t actually rooms? The Passage? The Landing? The Hall? The Corridor? And what about rooms that are just storage areas? At home when I was a lad we called our tiny third bedroom The Lobby, and I’ve never heard one called that before or since, and my grandson Thomas calls our tiny third bedroom The Book Room because it’s full of books, which are of course the best furniture, as the writer Virginia Woolf almost said, and she came from Wombwell, of course.

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