Define “living room”

(About my life, but with a linguistic hook.)

Back on December 30th I recovered my living room. For four months, my (nominal) living room had functioned as my bedroom: I slept, sitting up, in a chair (a recliner), and the coffee table next to it served as my bedside table, covered with all the things that would normally have been kept in my bedroom; meanwhile, my (nominal) bedroom served as a kind of storage room for stuff that had to be moved out of the rest of the house (to accommodate the family and friends who were helping to care for me).

Though there were places for a few people to sit in the room I was sleeping in, the function of the room was clear to visitors, who were a bit disconcerted by the arrangement. (By the way, for a considerable part of this time I was living in my bathrobe, or just a t-shirt and sweatpants, which functioned like pajamas, so I looked a lot like a man in his bedroom, whichever room I was in.) I’ll go through some of the history in another posting, but my immediate interest here is how to talk about these things. What goes along with the labels living room and bedroom?

The issue is familiar to me from other domains, in particularly the folk taxonomy of plants. In this taxonomy, plants are categorized according to their *characteristic functions* in our culture, and this taxonomy is reflected in the way plant names are categorized as count (C) or mass (M) nouns. Rose plants, for example, belong to the folk taxon FLOWER, because their characteristic function is to afford us beautiful flowers; one consequence of this is that the plant name rose is C rather than M (so, in ordinary usage: We have a lot of roses growing out in back, *We have a lot of rose growing out in back) — even if the *momentary function* of the plants is as a vine or ground cover (the taxa VINE and GROUND COVER are associated with M rather than C plant names). (Note that this is all about folk taxonomy; things are different in technical taxonomies, of which there are several for plants.)

So it is with the taxonomy of domestic rooms. The characteristic function of a room in the folk taxon LIVING ROOM (in current American culture) is to provide a location for public sociability; this momentary function can be served by rooms in the taxon BEDROOM, and rooms in the taxon LIVING ROOM can serve other momentary functions, for instance serving as sleeping places. So I can say, “I’ve been using my living room as a bedroom, and my bedroom as a storage room”, and people will understand this via the distinction between characteristic and momentary functions (not that anyone actually has those technical terms from semantics).

As with plants, when we turn to technical taxonomies, things are different (and, in this case, much more complicated). Counting and naming particular rooms of a house is a matter of interest to any number of legislative bodies, administrative agencies, and professional organizations, but (although botanical taxonomy is not exactly a settled or easy matter) in this case, the technical taxonomies are profoundly unsettled and unstandardized. From the Wine Country Properties website, this piece (with a few interpolated comments from me, though I could have made many more):

Measuring Houses and Counting Rooms
 by Chet Boddy

Room Counts, Bedrooms and Bathrooms

The real estate profession often describes houses by their total room count, the number of bedrooms and the number of bathrooms they contain. For example, the shorthand convention “5/2/1.5” describes a house with 5 rooms, 2 bedrooms and 1.5 bathrooms.

Local custom determines the definition of a “room.” In general, a room is a kitchen, a bedroom, a living room, a dining room, a family room, an office or a den. Bathrooms, laundry rooms, sun rooms, lofts, closets, storage rooms and entries are not usually considered to be rooms.

What is the difference between a den and a bedroom? If the den can function as a bedroom, there may be no difference at all. What is the difference between a dining area and a dining room? If you could add walls and it would remain functionally the same, a dining area can be called a dining room. [so, on some understandings, I have a dining room as well as a living room, since the two areas are visually separated]

A bedroom is any room that you can fit a conventional bed into. [this is pretty much hopeless; I could have ordered up a hospital bed for my living room — until late in December, my own bed was unusable because it needed repairing, which was done then, and in any case, it was too low for me to use until that day in late December  — but that wouldn’t have made my living room literally into a bedroom] Usually the local zoning, building or health codes establish minimum requirements for bedrooms. In general, bedrooms should be at least 90 square feet in size, with at least one bedroom in the house 120 square feet in size. Bedrooms should have a window which provides an emergency exit, natural light and ventilation. [have these people never heard of interior bedrooms?]

Bedrooms should have direct access to a hallway, living room or other common area. You should not have to walk through one bedroom to get to another. A bedroom should have a closet, but this is optional. Before closets, people stored their clothes in armoires and dressers.

Local custom also defines the bathroom. In most parts of the country, a full bathroom includes a toilet, a sink, a bathtub and a shower. A combination bath and shower counts as two fixtures. If the bathroom has only three fixtures it is a 3/4 bath. If it has only two fixtures it is a 1/2 bath, and if it has only one it is a 1/4 bath.

What happened back on December 30th was that I had discovered that I could get down to and up from a low surface, so my bed (once repaired) would now be usable, and Ned Deily came and spent the day with me, removing the bedroom stuff from the living room and restoring it to the bedroom, and along the way installing an Airport Express unit in my bedroom, so that I could continue to have my iTunes keep me company (at low volume) through the night.

The transition wasn’t seamless. I was still supposed to be sleeping on my back, with my legs splayed, or v-ed, out (a posture enforced in the hospital with a wedge between my legs). (Before my surgery, lying flat on my back was excruciatingly painful, impossible to sustain for more than moments at a time. And in any case I had never customarily slept this way, so it seemed unnatural.) For a while, I went back to the chair in the living room for part of the night; it was familiar and easy. Now I’m allowed to sleep on my side — even my right, or “bad”, side, the one where the hip was replaced — and things are easier. And getting up and down from low surfaces is also easy, though my ability to perform these simple acts still seems miraculous to me. Hell, I’m still getting used to walking unaided. (More on this history in a later posting.)


6 Responses to “Define “living room””

  1. arnold zwicky Says:

    Ned suggests that the reclamation happened on Saturday the 29th, not Sunday the 30th. He’s probably right, since he keeps much better calendars than I do. I was going on the receipt from the Apple Store.

    It was certainly a weekend day, and the Apple Store was incredibly crowded, a great difficulty for someone using a cane, as I was then, and also unbelievably noisy. But a beautiful space.

  2. arnold zwicky Says:

    From Ann Burlingham on Facebook:

    Anent rooms, I’m thinking of old apartments a la George Booth cartoons, with a bathtub in the kitchen, surely understood by all a[s] such and never as a bathroom one also cooks in. It feels weird to even conceptualize such a room.

    I’ve been through quite a collection of Booth cartoons, and a number of them have the guy in the bathtub — but in a bathroom through the door from the kitchen. Still, I *remember* these scenes the way you do.

  3. arnold zwicky Says:

    From Ned Deily on Facebook:

    An artist friend of mine used to live in a downtown work-loft apartment, converted without proper building permits by the building owner from an industrial workspace. It was a huge space with very high ceilings but with no permanent walls to divide the space. A kitchen was carved out of one area and a bed with curtains defined a bedroom. In the middle of the living room area, a old clawfoot tub sat on a small pedestal with a shower attachment rising up from it and, I think, a shower curtain surrounding the tub. There was no toilet, though. For that one had to use the public toilet in the lavatory down the hall. So trying to label the areas of the apartment was quite a challenge.

  4. arnold zwicky Says:

    From Michael Palmer on Facebook:

    Michael Palmer A friend in the university German department a few years ago had a first-year student who translated “living room” as “Lebensraum”. A teachable moment.

  5. bratschegirl Says:

    Not certain whether this has the force of law/regulation or whether it’s merely custom, but in my experience with real estate in order for a room to be classified as a “bedroom” it must have a closet; a room which otherwise resembles a bedroom but lacks a closet is usually called a den or study or some such.

  6. Joseph F Foster Says:

    Our den is the largest room in the house, with a wood burning fireplace, the TV, a baby grand, two large level harps, and places for 10 people to sit. And it’s semisubterranean (in a quadlevel the next lowest level). But ‘den’ may be a word I brought up from the Confederacy because I’ve noticed that the Yankees (prefix left off to be polite) here in Ohio call that a “family room”.

    When I was a boy in Arkansas, the room generally now under discussion as the “living room” was called by older people the parlor and by most of us the front room. But not much living or parling went on in the living room. Neighbors, friends, and family all came to the back or kitchen door. The only people who came to the front door were the preacher and the telegraph boy — normally a bad event since the only telegrams most people got were from the War or Navy Department. But the, or at least one, Bible kept in the front room so it could be dusted off real quick when the preacher came!

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