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Q From M D Dunderdale: Can you tell me why in British English we call an apartment a flat?

A The smart answer might be that a flat, like an apartment, is a set of rooms that’s usually on one floor of a building, so it’s all on a level and so flat. A link does exist between the two senses of the word, though it’s far from the whole story (or even storey).

The original was flet, an ancient Germanic word traceable to the same source as flat, in the sense of something that’s smooth, even and level. Flet began life in Old English meaning the ground under one’s feet. It could also mean a place where one lives, one’s house or dwelling. Both senses are in the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf. J R R Tolkien used this form in The Fellowship of the Ring for platforms built by the elves of Lothlorien in mallorn trees: “As he climbed slowly up Frodo passed many flets: some on one side, some on another, and some set about the bole of the tree, so that the ladder passed through them.”

In the sixteenth century wills often included the word in the phrase fire and flet — fire and house-room, or warmth and shelter — typically a bequest to the widow. It was sometimes written as fire and fleet. It appears in that form in an ancient northern English ballad, The Lyke Wake Dirge, that was sung by women during a wake, the period of watching over a dead body before the funeral:

This ean night, this ean night;
every night and awl:
Fire and Fleet and Candle-light
And Christ receive your soul.

[The fire, fleet and candlelight were the comforts given by the living to the dead during the wake; lyke means a corpse; ean, one; awl, all.]

The modern sense is already there in part in the idea of “house-room”. It was in Scotland that flet shifted to mean the inner part of a house and from there to a single storey of a dwelling. By the beginning of the nineteenth century it had changed its spelling to flat under the influence of that word. The first known example meaning an apartment is in Sir Walter Scott’s Redgauntlet in 1824, though it only became widely known later in the century.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 5 Jul. 2008

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 5 July 2008.