Japan Currents, June, 1997

What's in a Word?

A Lesson in Ethnocentricity

Tracing a word back through its history, while often interesting and sometimes revealing, is generally not considered to be a particularly practical pursuit. Only rarely does it significantly change one's point of view...

Before I arrived in Japan, arrangements were being made to find me a place in Tokyo, and one day I received a message about "a nice mansion" in the area where I wanted to live. As an American, I was somewhat puzzled, having been told that Japanese housing was usually quite cramped by our standards, and it wasn't until I received a copy of the floor plan that I realized it was an apartment. At this point I was amused: the Japanese had borrowed our word for the most exalted type of single-family dwelling, and applied it to an apartment building! Pompous? Childish? "Anyway," I thought, "charming."

I checked my dictionary to be sure, but it was just as I thought – a mansion is "a very large, impressive, or stately residence," usually the kind of great house associated with a very wealthy person. How did the luxurious mansion of the wealthy become a fancy Japanese apartment house? Was it a case of Japanese hyperbole? It seemed likely that mansion was a generalization based on the names of high-class apartment houses, like Leonardo Mansion or Green Mansion, etc. Apparently all mansions have names, though not always including the word mansion. I checked my Japanese dictionary: manshon, "a ferroconcrete apartment house of a better class (the dwelling units of which are individually owned or rented)." But then I found, to my surprise, "in England, an apartment." Clearly, some further research was required...

The English word mansion, as is the case with so many English words associated with the upper classes, traces its origins to French, where it is a word which traveled two paths, the other resulting in the common French word for house, maison. The mansion which became English in the 13th century, (around the end of the time when France ruled a part of the British Isles,) also originally had the basic meaning of 'a dwelling place.' Chaucer wrote (c.1384) that "Everything has its proper mansion (i.e. dwelling place) to which it longs to return." Somewhat later, in the King James translation of the Bible (1611), Jesus says (John xiv 2), "In my Father's house are many mansions," assuring the people that there would be dwelling places for them in God's house. But by the 15th century, the meaning had narrowed to "the chief residence of a lord; a manor-house." (This word manor, like mansion, and manse, 'the dwelling of a land-holder with the land attached', traces its roots back to the Latin verb manere, 'to remain, to stay.') And so, eventually, a mansion came to mean a large and stately residence, a rich man's dwelling.

By the 17th century, the usage for the more elegant building had further changed, and the large residence of a single family was referred to by the compound "mansion-house," like "manor-house," the house of someone of considerable importance or grandeur. (The official residence of the Lord Mayor of London is called "The Mansion-house.") It was apparently this form of the word, mansion-house, which traveled to America, where it was eventually shortened once more to its original form, while retaining only the more exalted meaning. And so in America mansion has the single meaning, 'a large, elegant house.'

But in 19th England the meaning of mansion expanded again, and this time it came to be used in the sense of 'the designation of the large buildings, divided into 'flats', which began to be erected in London about 1860,' used in the plural, as 'Belgrave Mansions' or 'Albert Mansions,' and sometimes even referred to as 'a mansions.' Considering this, it seems clear that the Japanese manshon is a direct adaptation of the English manner of naming elegant apartment buildings.

In fact, it must be only to American ears that calling an apartment house a mansion seems amusing or pompous, and worthy of a condescending smile. The pomposity, however, to my own chagrin, was actually my own, a product of my ethnocentricity – the mistaken belief that American English is the source for all Japanese loan-words from English, and that the American meanings are the meanings. Sometimes a little etymological research can supply a healthy dose of humility...

Stephen Trussel

August 20, 2002

I read your little piece on the origins of the word "mansion." I'm preparing a sermon for this week and I am referring to John 14:2, "in my fathers house are many mansions..." I found your research very helpful, but might I add...

The word mansion in the old English refers to a place to dwell, i.e. remain. The word mason (one who build with stone) is related. The homes or dwellings built with stone (mansions) were permanent dwelling places, not temporary like a wood home built with thatching and straw and cow dung. The use of the AV translators using the word mansion conveys the idea that Jesus went to prepare a place of permanent "belong-ness" for us, not buildings to dwell in.

In my Father's house is much "belongness." I go to prepare the way for you to feel right at home when I bring you in. I go to do this so when I come to get you, we can always be together. (Highly paraphrased)

The use of this word in this text seems to convey an intimate relationship more then a place of dwelling.

Good work.
Karl Wagner
Glendale, AZ