Roommates

by John Quiggin on July 14, 2006

In my dialect of English, shared living arrangements (normally non-familial) can be described by three terms.
A housemate (or flatmate) is someone who shares your house (normally not your room, but this is open)
A roommate is someone who shares your room (normally not your bed, but see above)
A bedmate is self-explanatory.

In US English, “roommate” seems to cover all three, but US English speakers seem able to infer which is intended from the context. Can anyone help me with a usage guide?

I came to this point after reading an NYT article on urban dorms about a woman in NY, who is helping young professionals lower their cost of NY City living by matching them with “roommates”. This sounded pretty challenging until it became apparent that everyone gets their own room, so, in my dialect they are flatmates.

Not that putting together a workable group to share a house isn’t a problem, but it’s one that most people in my age cohort dealt with repeatedly on their own, admittedly with varying degrees of success. So to me, the take-home point would have been the professionalisation of yet another activity people previously did for themselves, rather than the fact that when rents are high relative to income, groups of unrelated people share houses (wasn’t there a popular TV show about this a few years back?).

{ 48 comments }

1

Rob 07.14.06 at 4:33 pm

Well, for one no one calls them flats in the US, they are apartments. Try saying apartmentmate. Yeah. In general very few people actually share a given room (outside of college)so it usually means flatmate.

As to services, I’ve seen plenty but it was more a source for information clearing ratehr than a matchign service.

2

Rob 07.14.06 at 4:37 pm

Oh, yes. As to bedmate versus roomate, the former is usually covered by living together.

3

Christopher M 07.14.06 at 4:41 pm

There’s really not a lot to it. “Bedmate” is not used in U.S. English. (Not that anyone would misunderstand, but it’s just not a term that gets used.) “Housemate” is possible but not that common (and “apartmentmate” even less so).

“Roommate” is vague, as you note, but there are a few guidelines.

1) If you’re romantically involved with someone and sharing either a room, an apartment, or a house, it would be a little strange to call that person your “roommate” unless you’re really trying to put semantic stress on the fact of living together as opposed to being a couple.

2) The use of “roommates” to mean “sharing an apartment but not a single room” has pretty strong connotations of youth (younger than 35, let’s say), and it would certainly strike an odd note to describe, say, two widows living together in an apartment with separate bedrooms as “roommates.” Not that you couldn’t say it.

3) Among non-related non-romantically-involved people past college age (or in college but in an apartment rather than a dormitory), sharing a bedroom would be very unusual. So you’re generally safe in assuming that “roommates” aren’t sharing a bedroom unless they’re college roommates in a dorm.

4

Christopher M 07.14.06 at 4:46 pm

Um, you might also find these definitions helpful. Or not.

5

Christopher M 07.14.06 at 4:48 pm

If that link isn’t working, it’s to http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=roommate

6

Anderson 07.14.06 at 4:57 pm

Americans consider it sub-poverty-level to sleep in the same room with someone, outside the college-dorm setting. So we would almost never use “roommate” in your sense.

And “roommate” almost never means “person I am in a sexual, bedsharing relationship with.” I can’t think of a girl I know who wouldn’t be offended to be called a “roommate” by her boyfriend.

7

LizardBreath 07.14.06 at 5:06 pm

The way I use it, ‘roommate’ means pretty much exactly what ‘flatmate’ means for you. It includes your usage of ‘roommate’ as well, but that’s such an uncommon situation once you’re out of college dorms that it’s something you’d explain explicitly (“Jane is my roommate — we both sleep in the front bedroom”) rather than having a different word for it.

And it doesn’t mean ‘bedmate,’ which I’m taking as ‘live-in sex partner’, unless the speaker is trying to create ambiguity or a sense of emotional distance.

8

Christopher M 07.14.06 at 5:18 pm

I can’t think of a girl I know who wouldn’t be offended to be called a “roommate” by her boyfriend.

To generalize, I can’t think of anyone I know, of either sex, who wouldn’t be offended to be called a “roommate” by a romantic partner, unless there was special reason to emphasize the living arrangements separately from the relationship. (That is, I don’t think many people would be offended by “My girlfriend and I used to have separate apartments, but now we’re roommates.” Even there, “now we’re living together” sounds more typical.)

9

lalala 07.14.06 at 5:38 pm

I use housemate pretty frequently, FWIW. Otherwise I agree with pretty much everything that’s been said here.

10

Elliot Reed 07.14.06 at 5:43 pm

I don’t think anyone would use “roommate” in the context of a sexual relationship on a regular basis unless the purpose was to conceal that aspect of the relationship, as with referring to one’s same-sex partner as a “roommate.”

11

Ben 07.14.06 at 5:46 pm

I generally use “housemate” for people I have shared apartments with, though occasionally also “roommate” even though it’s inaccurate and “flatmate” even though it’s a Britishism (because of the “apartmentmate” issue). but if Americans call their SO a housemate, they’re probably trying to be funny. (and of course, one doesn’t “live with” a non-romantic partner, even when you live with them).

I’ve been told that in german there are the prepositions “mit” and “bei” to distinguish romantic and non-romantic living companions. A good solution in my view.

12

Eszter 07.14.06 at 5:53 pm

This was confusing in grad school. We had separate rooms in which to sleep, but I had to go through my roommate’s room to get out of our living space and she had to go through my room to get to our bathroom. I guess this doesn’t really address your question:), but I thought it was still worthy of note. For sure we just called each other roommates. These were not apartments, but they weren’t the usual dorms either since each 2-3 rooms had their own private bathroom. Or at least we liked to think they were a step up from dorms.

13

Ajax 07.14.06 at 5:55 pm

A Chinese friend once told me that kitchen-mate (ie, “person-with-whom-I-share-a-kitchen”) was the everyday Chinese term for one’s unmarried lover. Thus Chinese students in western university accommodation with shared cooking facilities sometimes found it difficult to explain their living arrangements to their families back home.

14

anonymous 07.14.06 at 5:57 pm

If someone said he had a “housemate”, I would assume that he lived in a building that had been a house, but had been subdivided into two apartments (connected or otherwise) and the two owners/renters collaborate on maintenance and tax issues. Other then that, it is “roommate.”

15

fred lapides 07.14.06 at 5:59 pm

Roomie–covers all possibilities

16

cs 07.14.06 at 6:01 pm

Now that we’re clear on roommates, could someone please explain to me the “just broke the water pitcher” reference? I always assumed it was a category for making fun of things that were really dumb (so dumb that they made you momentarily lose control of your body and drop the pitcher that you were holding). But now I think that’s not exactly it.

17

Aidan Maconachy 07.14.06 at 6:16 pm

Lol Fred – good one!

18

Bernard Yomtov 07.14.06 at 6:21 pm

I think #14 is right on “housemate.” I take it to mean that the quarters that are shared are actually a house, rather than an apartment.

There will be usually be several people sharing a house, and consequently some personnel changes over time. Thus, to my mind, there is less of an implication of friendship in “housemate” than in “roommate.” This is a weak distinction, obviously, but I would be more inclined to think that someone’s roommate was also a friend than someone’s housemate. Could be just me.

19

LizardBreath 07.14.06 at 6:23 pm

16: It’s from Borges. I don’t know if it means anything here more than ‘unclassifiable’.

These ambiguities, redundances, and deficiences recall those attributed by Dr. Franz Kuhn to a certain Chinese encyclopedia entitled Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge. On those remote pages it is written that animals are divided into (a) those that belong to the Emperor, (b) embalmed ones, (c) those that are trained, (d) suckling pigs, (e) mermaids, (f) fabulous ones, (g) stray dogs, (h) those that are included in this classification, (i) those that tremble as if they were mad, (j) innumerable ones, (k) those drawn with a very fine camel’s hair brush, (l) others, (m) those that have just broken a flower vase, (n) those that resemble flies from a distance.

20

triticale 07.14.06 at 6:30 pm

My mate was rather flat when we first became a couple, but the developed a figure once she went on the Pill.

21

Laura 07.14.06 at 7:46 pm

I’ve never encountered the term ‘bedmate’ before and I live in southern Australia.

What about low-paid immigrant workers in the US who do share bedroom accommodation, what words do they use?

22

sasha 07.14.06 at 7:46 pm

Actually, I’ve heard “housemate” used fairly often to mean people with whom one shares a (non-divided) house, in the “flatmate” sense. And if I recall correctly, in college, people used “housemate” all the time, even for shared apartments, to distinguish from “roommate” in the shared room sense.

But in general, outside of college shared rooms are not at all common, so “roommate” generally means “flatmate”.

Although we do have “flats” in San Francisco, distinguished from apartments by a separate entrance, so I’ve heard “flatmate” used here as well.

23

will u. 07.14.06 at 8:00 pm

I used “roommate” until I became tired of explaining that, in fact, I don’t actually room with multiple females. (If only!) Now I use “flatmate,” despite the Britishness.

24

Gene O'Grady 07.14.06 at 9:20 pm

Rob (#1), flat in the sense of apartment is certainly in common use in San Francisco, perhaps because of the nature of the older housing now converted into, well, flats. But I’ve never heard “flatmate.”

Many years ago when I was an undergraduate the word “suitemate” was in use for what Eszter describes. Doubt it still exists.

To me “bedmate” would be a very disparaging term — somewhere between pick-up and slut. Did the original post imply that it was sometimes used more neutrally?

25

Dr. Free-Ride 07.14.06 at 9:45 pm

“Housemate” is what I have heard (and used) in California to describe people sharing apartments or houses. This could include someone with whom one shares a bed when describing the relationship to relatives of a certain age or temperament.

The correct term for the people who live in the other unit in a duplex seems to be “Those bastards on the other side of the wall.”

26

polyglot conspiracy 07.14.06 at 11:17 pm

“Suitemate” does still exist in Am. English, at least wherever there are suites (rooms adjoined by common rooms). But in a suite, you can also have a roommate. At my undergrad there were two bedrooms (i.e. dorm rooms) adjoined by a common living room and bathrooms. Whoever shared your bedroom was your “roommate,” and whoever lived in the other bedroom (across the living room) was your “suitemate.”

For people who actually live in houses, I think #18 is right about the “housemate”/”roommate” distinction – “housemate” carries a less personal implication, as in “I live with these people in a ‘group house'” – which, at least in the DC area, tends to mean a bunch of people living together who weren’t friends before, but it’s also not a coop or communal situation. “Roommate” sounds more intimate.

On the sexual partner issue, #11 brings up a good point. People don’t call an SO a “roommate;” they say “We live together” if the issue comes up. Conversely, people who are roommates but not lovers generally don’t say “We live together.”

27

James Wimberley 07.15.06 at 4:10 am

The ambiguity of US “roommate” follows directly from the un-pronounceability of the logical “apartmentmate”.
For illegal immigrants sharing a cramped room in a hovel with others, perhaps “cellmate”.

28

belle le triste 07.15.06 at 4:42 am

why do we say “soulmate” but never “heartmate”?

29

etat 07.15.06 at 8:07 am

Belle, possibly because the soul is held in greater esteem than the heart. But your question raises several interesting spin-offs. In the absence of a soul, what quality would be held in the highest esteem? Would it be a sense of aesthetics or artistic temperment, perhaps, and would we then say ‘my aestheticsmate’? Ouch, methinks. Likewise for intellect as a defining quality. However, if politics is your thing, then comrade seems to occupy a similar place as soulmate.

30

Ryan MIller 07.15.06 at 8:34 am

In my particular area of experience with this phenomenon (college and then young-professional life in the western part of Boston), there are several ways of expressing the distinction.

1) suitemate/roommate — in my experience only used in college-owned living situations, never in independently procured apartments.

2) housemate/roommate — perhaps generally used in situations where the landlord sets up the living arrangements, rather than forming a group and then seeking accommodation.

3) roommate/direct roommate — this is the one I haven’t seen mentioned above, and seems to have taken the strongest hold in the world I inhabit. Because as mentioned above, having one’s own room is the norm, the other case is rare enough to warrant the specification ‘direct’ to make the situation clear.

Also, as noted above, ‘bedmate’ is not a term anyone here would ever dream of using.

31

dearieme 07.15.06 at 12:13 pm

Hey ho, and the English “flat” apparently comes from a misunderstanding of the Scottish “flat”, meaning one floor (storey) of a tenement (apartment building). The individual residences (apartments) on that flat are called “houses”. The English usage is now usual in Scotland too, except in legal documents. Boring, eh?

32

'As you know' Bob 07.15.06 at 4:05 pm

As Will U at #23 points out:

I used “roommate” until I became tired of explaining that, in fact, I don’t actually room with multiple females. (If only!)

The ambiguousness of “roommate” is sometimes a feature, not a bug. College-era shared housing is the first time most people live with an unrelated member of the opposite sex, so guys especially revel in the unspecified nature of the “roommate” relationship, as it allows them to pretend to sexual experience: “Oh, yeah, her? we were roommates once” – with the hope that the listener draws a flattering conclusion.

“Living together” is rarely used in the same, way as a bluff. “Oh, yeah, we lived together for a year or two.” Which might be literally true, even when the full meaning of “living together” might not be.

I suppose it’s a grammatical construction, but I’ve never hears anyone describe someone as a “bedmate”.

33

Lindsay Beyerstein 07.15.06 at 5:24 pm

In my idiolect, “housemates” literally share houses. “Roommate” applies any non-related adults sharing a household–be it a room, an apartment, or a house.

“Roommates” connotes a non-romantic relationship, except if it’s used as a euphemism for “same sex partner”–(e.g., the title character in the children’s book “Daddy’s Roommate”).

34

Ben Alpers 07.15.06 at 6:44 pm

I once encountered an only slightly semi-closeted gay man who came of age before Stonewall and who always referred to his longtime companion as “my roommate.” Everyone, so far as I could tell, understood what their relationship was. I don’t know if the origin of his usage was ironic or simply a convenient euphemism. This is the only time I’ve heard the word used to describe a sexual relationship.

And thanks for the memories of the Princeton Grad College, Eszter. Even at 23, I was too old for the “you walk through my bedroom to go to the bathroom and I’ll walk through your bedroom to exit” system. I got out of there after one year and never looked back (except to go to the D Bar).

35

moriarty 07.15.06 at 9:31 pm

Without the ambiguity of “roommate,” Three’s Company could never have been made.

36

amberglow 07.15.06 at 10:17 pm

re:34. That usage is very common among older guys. “Lover” to them is the person someone cheats with (like with straight people), and “boyfriend” is too juvenile and casual. “Partner” has been growing in usage with older couples, but that sounds too businesslike to many also.

“Living together” is probably the US equivalent of “bedmate” (which i think sounds restrictive and weird, like it’s a sex-only thing and not an actual relationship)

Housemate is rarely used here in NYC, because it’s almost always apartment-sharing–Roommate is the right term, whether you actually share a space or just the whole apt. In the midwest and other places where there are more actual houses, Housemate is a very common term. I’ve only ever heard pretentious people here use “flatmate”(in an attempt to seem more Euro/exotic)

37

Lawrence Krubner 07.15.06 at 10:47 pm

The ambiguity of “roommate” never occured to me during the 90s. These last 3 or 4 years, I’ve started using the phrase “houesmate” for those I live with. Others, too, have begun to correct me when I use “roommate” – they clarify that I mean “housemate”. But if I slip up and use “roommate” I think everyone assumes I mean “housemate”.

A friend of mine, who in the room with me right now, adds “I’m often unsure of what someone means when they say “roommate”. If I know the person well, I ask a follow up question to qualify the situation. If I don’t know the person well, I remain uncertain about what they mean – I don’t ask follow-up questions with strangers for fear of prying.”

38

Lawrence Krubner 07.15.06 at 11:32 pm

Of course, we are speaking in generalities. There are niche sub-cultures where other norms hold. Among the music underground “garage bands” that I know, musicians often rent large rooms, and then a whole band will live there with their equipment. “Roommate” then means roommate.

39

Dan 07.16.06 at 4:42 am

Watching an episode of US Big Brother recently, I noticed that the participants are referred to as “house guests”, rather than “housemates” in Australia and the UK. I assumed from that that “housmate” was not in common usage.

40

Michael Sullivan 07.16.06 at 7:16 am

In my estimation (US northeast), “housemate” is getting much more commonly used to mean what UK folks would call “flatmate”. While it’s still not as common as “roommate”, it’s common enough that most people will not assume that there is a traditional detached house involved.

Roommate still covers both semantic spaces, and it is be assumed from context (or left ambiguous) whether people actually share a room (common in dorms or large studios a la 38). What will always be assumed is that the partnership is not sexual or romantic, unless “roommate” is being used to hide (or facetiously pretend to hide) that relationship.

As 34/36 mention, it’s fairly common in gay culture (even in the post-stonewall generations, though i’d say it’s declining there) to use roomate in this latter way. Tone or other shibboleths are often used as a signifier to split the semantics. Those who are familiar and comfortable with queer culture will immediately recognize the euphemism and see the comment as facetious, while those who are ignorant of it will be left in the dark.

Michael

41

nick s 07.16.06 at 10:39 am

Without the ambiguity of “roommate,” Three’s Company could never have been made.

I think you mean ‘without Man About The House‘ — which brings up another ambiguity, since Jo, Chrissy and Robin were flatmates.

42

david cake 07.17.06 at 3:42 am

I’ve never heard roommate used for people who did not actually share a room, and sharing a room on a long term basis is almost unknown except for lovers, even in the University college system (which often have shared kitchens, but I’ve not heard of shared bedrooms).

The most common situations for use of the term roommate I have found is sharing hotel rooms for conferences and conventions.

Housemate, on the other hand, is used even when the residence is not a free standing house (and may be used inclusive of lovers, but does not carry that connotation). Flatmate is specific to apartments and a little more common.

43

Cryptic Ned 07.17.06 at 10:45 am

As a USian and a member of the college class of 2004, in my experience:
– For people who share a room, the word is “roommate”
– For people who share an apartment but not a room, the word is “roommate”
– For people who share a house, the word is “roommate”

– And this absolutely does not apply to people who are romantically involved. Their relationship is not a roommate relationship, it is a “boyfriend/girlfriend” relationship. The fact that they live together is less important.

44

WorldWideWeber 07.17.06 at 1:50 pm

As a USian and a member of the college class of 1976, I have to agree with cryptic ned. I think “roommate” is taken to mean someone a person rooms with, regardless of the domicile. People sometimes say “housemate,” and admittedly it is more specific (and thus useful in its own way), but when they do I get the feeling they’re perhaps excessively proud of the fact they’re rooming in a house and not an apartment. At any rate, I think it’s just as likely they’d say, “I’m thinking of throwing a party at my house next Saturday, if it’s okay with my roommates” as … the other formulation.

It occurs to me that “housemate” connotes a somewhat cooler relationship than “roommate” — that “roommates” are more likely to have known one another before rooming together (post-college), while “housemates” are the sort of people one picks up through the classifieds or who get thrown together at the whim of a landlord. But others may hear it differently.

45

washerdreyer 07.17.06 at 3:36 pm

I use apartmentmate interchangably with roommate, though I use the latter far more often.

46

sutton 07.17.06 at 3:47 pm

Housemate = person with whom you share a house.
Roommate = person with whom you share an apartment OR a room, or both.

No one would ever expect that you are having sex with your roommate, at least not unless there was more evidence than your referring to him or her as “roommate.”

47

sutton 07.17.06 at 3:51 pm

And there is no word to distinguish between “person with whom you share living accomodations but NOT a room” and “non-significant-other with whom you actually share a room.” Most likely this is because there is no NEED to make such a distinction. The larger set of “roommates” covers you in both instances, while advertising that you actually share a room unnecessarily divulges something like what the Brits might call your “class.”

Not that we have such a concept here in the states, of course.

48

HK 07.18.06 at 7:42 am

As a UKer, I have housemates (friends I already knew with whom I share an undivided house). I certainly wouldn’t refer to a roomate.

In Cambridge there are “double sets” (usually two bedrooms off a shared lounge), but I can’t remember whether I ever heard the term ‘setmate’ used; I think it would usually be rephrased as ‘we share a set’. Sets, at least in my college, were the older rooms: more recently built (i.e. 60s) rooms were almost always single bedrooms, so the term is falling out of usage.

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