Though these days the term wordmonger refers to "a writer or speaker who uses language pretentiously or carelessly," please join me in proposing a new meaning. A fishmonger appreciates and promotes fish, therefore, a wordmonger does the same for words.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Sheds, Shacks & Hovels

Sheds, Shacks & Hovels

Inspired by the need to tear down & rebuild a garden shed, I find myself intrigued by the etymologies (or lack thereof) of shed & its various synonyms.

Shed is of questionable parentage. It appeared in English in the 1400s. It may have its roots in the word shade, but no certain evidence has jumped forth into the sunlight to prove this theory.

Similarly, the term shack has no definite parentage. It first appeared in print in 1878. Some etymologists argue that it may be a variant of shake, or possible have come from ramshackle (both of which predate it). Others claim it may have come from the Nahuatl word xacalli, wooden hut, through Mexican Spanish. Still nobody really knows from whence the shack came.

The word hovel isn’t really a synonym for shack or shed, but a hovel is a small building, & I have a fondness for the word. I lived a year in a place friends & family referred to as "hovel sweet hovel." It was one of seven tiny, decrepit buildings near San Luis Obispo Creek. I had to duck to enter, I couldn’t sit on the toilet with the bathroom door closed, & the mushrooms growing from the floor were not an interior decorating decision. Hovel showed up in English back in the 1300s, meaning a vent for smoke, & within a century had come to mean a shed for animals. It wasn’t until the 1600s that it came to mean a rude or miserable cabin. This last definition is particularly apropos. I learned afterward that the compound of seven hovels had been used in the 1940s to house the county’s Japanese residents as they waited to be delivered to internment camps. Misery indeed.

So, dear readers, please leave a comment with a tidbit of a tale regarding any shed, shack, or hovel experiences you’ve “enjoyed.”

My thanks go out to this week’s sources,,, & the OED.


  1. I think I've visited those hovels down by the creek! Fascinating that "shack" hasn't been in English usage very long at all.

  2. Shed is what used to happen to my skin after hours in the Florida sun. (Hey, I was a kid, it was the 50s, wha'd I know?)
    Shack is the loud sound I make when I have a readdy bad coad id by doaz.
    A hovel is where I should be if I'm going to finish my novel. (No windows, no fridge, maybe even no door.)

  3. Ahoy Steve & Anne,
    Thanks for joining me in my digital hovel. Anne, I agree, it's astounding that ramshackle & shake predate shack.

  4. I also like the word hovel. Don't know why. I thought of the word "hostel" while reading your post. According to Random House hostel means "an inexpensive, supervised lodging place for young travelers." I wonder how long that word has been in existence and if it is a take off of hovel. I've never stayed in a hostel but imagine them to be pretty austere.

  5. Hi Christine,
    I've stayed at a few hostels, and in my experience, they range from shoddy/tacky through austere, to downright spiffy. The term "youth hostel" was born in 1931, but the word hostel was used to mean "inn, lodgings or shelter" as far back as the 1200s. It's more closely related to hospital than it is to hovel.

  6. Although late in my reading and response, I wanted to tell about the time I met my great-uncle Manuel in Morro Bay. I had to duck down my head to enter his home (and I was under and still am five foot tall), which had no lighting only a lantern and a dirt floor. He lived right off the harbor, and made his living as a fisherman. He could only speak Portuguese, so I didn't have a conversation with him, but I listened as my VooVoo (grandfather) and he talked. I sat on the dusty chair in awe that he lived in the shack he called home and listen to two men speak a language I so wanted to learn.