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‘Guests’ and ‘hosts’

By Anatoly Liberman


The questions people ask about word origins usually concern slang, family names, and idioms. I cannot remember being ever asked about the etymology of house, fox, or sun. These are such common words that we take them for granted, and yet their history is often complicated and instructive. In this blog, I usually stay away from them, but I sometimes let my Indo-European sympathies run away with me. Today’s subject is of this type.

Guest is an ancient word, with cognates in all the Germanic languages. If in English its development had not been interrupted, today it would have been pronounced approximately like yeast, but in the aftermath of the Viking raids the native form was replaced with its Scandinavian congener, as also happened to give, get, and many other words. The modern spelling guest, with u, points to the presence of “hard” g (compare guess). The German and Old Norse for guest are Gast and gestr respectively; the vowel in German (it should have been e) poses a problem, but it cannot delay us here.

The hostess and her guests

The related forms are Latin hostis and, to give one Slavic example, Russian gost’. Although the word had wide currency (Italic-Germanic-Slavic), its senses diverged. Latin hostis meant “public enemy,” in distinction from inimicus “one’s private foe.” (I probably don’t have to add that inimicus is the ultimate etymon of enemy.) In today’s English, hostile and inimical are rather close synonyms, but inimical is more bookish and therefore more restricted in usage (some of my undergraduate students don’t understand it, but everybody knows hostile). However, “enemy” was this noun’s later meaning, which supplanted “stranger (who in early Rome had the rights of a Roman).” And “stranger” is what Gothic gasts meant. In the text of the Gothic Bible (a fourth-century translation from Greek), it corresponds to ksénos “stranger,” from which we have xeno-, as in xenophobia. Incidentally, by the beginning of the twentieth century, the best Indo-European scholars had agreed that Greek ksénos is both a gloss and a cognate of hostis ~ gasts (with a bit of legitimate phonetic maneuvering all of them can be traced to the same protoform). This opinion has now been given up; ksénos seems to lack siblings. (What a drama! To mean “stranger” and end up in linguistic isolation.) The progress of linguistics brings with it not only an increase in knowledge but also the loss of many formerly accepted truths. However, caution should be recommended. Some people whose opinion is worth hearing still believe in the affinity between ksénos and hostis. Discarded conjectures are apt to return. Today the acknowledged authorities separate the Greek word from the cognates of guest; tomorrow, the pendulum may swing in the opposite direction.

Let us stay with Latin hostis for some more time. Like guest, Engl. host is neither an alien nor a dangerous adversary. The reason is that host goes back not to hostis but to Old French (h)oste, from Latin hospit-, the root of hospes, which meant both “host” and “guest,” presumably, an ancient compound that sounded as ghosti-potis “master (or lord) of strangers” (potis as in potent, potential, possibly despot, and so forth). We remember Latin hospit- from Engl. hospice, hospital, and hospitable, all, as usual, via Old French. Hostler, ostler, hostel, and hotel belong here too, each with its own history, and it is amusing that so many senses have merged and that, for instance, a hostel is not a hostile place.

Unlike host “he who entertains guests,” Engl. host “multitude” does trace to Latin hostis “enemy.” In Medieval Latin, this word acquired the sense “hostile, invading army,” and in English it still means “a large armed force marshaled for war,” except when used in a watered down sense, as in a host of troubles, a host of questions, or a host of friends (!). Finally, the etymon of host “consecrated wafer” is Latin hostia “sacrificial victim,” again via Old French. Hostia is a derivative of hostis, but the sense development to “sacrifice” (through “compensation”?) is obscure.

The puzzling part of this story is that long ago the same words could evidently mean “guest” and “the person who entertains guests”, “stranger” and “enemy.” This amalgam has been accounted for in a satisfactory way. Someone coming from afar could be a friend or an enemy. “Stranger” covers both situations. With time different languages generalized one or the other sense, so that “guest” vacillated between “a person who is friendly and welcome” and “a dangerous invader.” Newcomers had to be tested for their intentions and either greeted cordially or kept at bay. Words of this type are particularly sensitive to the structure of societal institutions. Thus, friend is, from a historical point of view, a present participle meaning “loving,” but Icelandic frændi “kinsman” makes it clear that one was supposed “to love” one’s relatives. “Friendship” referred to the obligation one had toward the other members of the family (clan, tribe), rather than a sentimental feeling we associate with this word.

It is with hospitality as it is with friendship. We should beware of endowing familiar words with the meanings natural to us. A friendly visit presupposes reciprocity: today you are the host, tomorrow you will be your host’s guest. In old societies, the “exchange” was institutionalized even more strictly than now. The constant trading of roles allowed the same word to do double duty. In this situation, meanings could develop in unpredictable ways. In Modern Russian, as well as in the other Slavic languages, gost’ and its cognates mean “guest,” but a common older sense of gost’ was “merchant” (it is still understood in the modern language and survives in several derivatives). Most likely, someone who came to Russia to sell his wares was first and foremost looked upon as a stranger; merchant would then be the product of semantic specialization.

One can also ask what the most ancient etymon of hostis ~ gasts was. Those scholars who looked on ksénos and hostis as related also cited Sanskrit ghásati “consume.” If this sense can be connected with the idea of offering food to guests, we will again find ourselves in the sphere of hospitality. The Sanskrit verb begins with gh-. The founders of Indo-European philology believed that words like Gothic gasts and Latin host go back to a protoform resembling the Sanskrit one. Later, according to this reconstruction, initial gh- remained unchanged in some languages of India but was simplified to g in Germanic and h in Latin. The existence of early Indo-European gh- has been questioned, but reviewing this debate would take us too far afield and in that barren field we will find nothing. We only have to understand that gasts ~ guest and hostis ~ host can indeed be related.

There is a linguistic term enantiosemy. It means a combination of two opposite senses in one word, as in Latin altus “high” and “deep.” Some people have spun an intricate yarn around this phenomenon, pointing out that everything in the world has two sides (hence the merger of the opposites) or admiring the simplicity (or complexity?) of primitive thought, allegedly unable to discriminate between cold and hot, black and white, and the like. But in almost all cases, the riddle has a much simpler solution. Etymology shows that the distance from host to guest, from friend to enemy, and from love to hatred is short, but we do not need historical linguists to tell us that.

Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here, each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to him care of blog@oup.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”

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Image credit: Conversation de dames en l’absence de leurs maris: le diner. Abraham Bosse. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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6 Responses to “‘Guests’ and ‘hosts’”
  1. mollymooly says:

    French “hôte” still has both meanings; “table d’hôte” = host’s table; “chambre d’hôte” = guest’s room. But a female host is une hôtesse, whereas a female guest is une hôte.

  2. Henno Brandsma says:

    In modern West Frisian we have a similar replacement: old Frisian had “jest” for guest (nice and regular), with e.g. jesthus being used as a word for hospital (still gasthuis is used as such in many names for hospitals to this day). In the plural there could be forms with a (gastum as a dat. pl. ), and the WF form nowadays is “gast” [pronounced with deep short o, because of the -s that follows], which could be explained with a vowel from the plural, but which I believe is an adaptation from the Dutch gast. Such words with j (from g- before palatal vowels) have historically been under pressure in WF: we now say “gat”[gOt], no longer “jet” (for hole, Dutch gat, again we could use a plural form as an excuse), gêst (yeast), no longer “*jêst”, probably influenced (in its consonant only) by Dutch “gist” .WF has a voiced stop, not a fricative like Dutch has, though. It’s a nice parallel with the English being influenced by the cognates from Scandinavian…

  3. Jenna says:

    Love the article, hate to be so pedantic, but:

    “pointing out that everything in the world has too sides”

    Surely you meant “two” sides? :) I find it hard to believe that this text was not proofread before publishing…

  4. A bit later then usual …

    When you write that: “Those scholars who looked on ksénos and hostis as related also cited Sanskrit ghásati “consume.” … The Sanskrit verb begins with gh-.”, this is not completely true.
    The words hostis/gast and ksénos are connected with a root PIE *ǵhes- ‘to take, give in exchange’ (cp. lat. hostus ‘the yield of olive from a single pressing’), that is also the basis of gr. kheír ‘hand, fist’, so that (de Vaan, Etymological Dictionary of Latin, p. 291) “hostis would have developed from an earlier
    abstract noun ‘exchange’” (cp. for example B. Vine, An alleged case of “inflectional contamination”: on the i-stem inflection of Latin civis. Incontri Linguistici 29 [2006], 139-158; also favourized in de Vaan).

  5. [...] also explored guest and host words, the genetic lexicon, and horse idioms and proverbs. In addition, they explained when wrong usages [...]

  6. Isaac Demme says:

    Supposing your suggestion that Latin hostis and Sanskrit ghásati are related through the idea of a food offering to strangers, would this not also furnish an explanation for Latin hostia?
    A sacrificial victim is also (especially in the ancient world) an offering which is consumed (albeit not often consumed by a stranger).

    This could also be supported by Roland’s note above that hostis, ghast, ksenos, and hostus are connected with PIE *ǵhes, although the connection between sacrifice and exchange is a bit more tenuous.

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