• tenement •
te-nê-mênt • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Noun
Meaning: 1. A multifamily housing unit with tenants, an apartment building. 2. A rundown apartment building run by a slum landlord. 3. (British) A room or apartment rented out.
Notes: Today's word comes from Late Latin and thus has had little chance to produce a family. If you look long and far enough, you will find a rarely used adjective, tenemental, which suggests an adverb, tenementally, and a noun, tenementality, but I know of no one brave enough to use either in mixed or unmixed company. (I guess that leaves it up to me; see the next section.)
In Play: In the US, today's Good Word is often used in the plural to refer to an impoverished but intricate style of life: "Amanda Lynn lifted herself out of the tenements playing a stringed instrument." (Guess which one.) Now let's see what we can do with the implied derivations mentioned in the Notes: "Living in the tenements, Amanda developed a tenementality about working together closely with other people." You might say that she stays in New York for tenemental reasons. Oh, stop groaning.
Word History: Tenement entered Middle English meaning simply "house", as did the original Medieval Latin tenementum. This word is based on tenere "to hold", whose root derives from a Proto-Indo-European (PIE) root ubiquitous throughout Indo-European languages: ten- "to stretch". As we all know, of course, PIE [t] converted to [th] in Germanic languages like English, so it came to us as thin, the way things get when stretched. In Latin the [t] didn't change, so "thin" in Latin is tenuis, the source of our tenuous. (Our gratitude for sharing this word goes out today to Walter Hershman, who, we can say without stretching the truth thin, holds a healthy interest in the history of New York City.)
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