Thursday, March 18, 2010

A few people in Colson Hall have asked me about tenants, tenets, and tenents, so I figure here would be the best locale for an etymological reply.

Let's pick up two lines of evidence. First, we'll work from the Oxford English Dictionary (OED, available to WVU folk at our library's website :
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In the electronic version of the OED, there is an etymology button which reveals each word's known history. As you might have guessed from the similar forms, all three of our specimens come from similar Latin origins. The verb tenir in French still means 'to hold', and tenant (noun) appears to have come from the past participle of tenir by about 1300 CE. The noun tenet came into English much later, around 1619, but appears to have been drawn from Latin writings, not contemporary French. Tenet had immediate stiff competition for survival from tenent. Both forms refer to 'a belief held' but tenet may have referred to a belief by an individual, whereas tenent referred to a belief held by a group (singular and plural conjugations of the Latin verb, respectively). The form tenent was dominant in the seventeenth century, but as these things go, it's meaning was quickly mingled with tenet, and language does not love a synonym.

Semantically speaking, tenant has changed the most. It has been a legal term and a term of wider use. In fourteenth century English law, the OED notes this meaning: "One who holds or possesses lands or tenements by any kind of title". The next step in the semantic change involved tenant referring to the relations between an owner and the person living on the land or in the domicile. The use of tenant to refer to people who lease property that other people own did start early, but only picked up momentum (and became the norm) in the eighteenth century.

Our other line of evidence to discover the ins and outs of these three forms is what I call "The Magic Box", internet searches. Google informs us that it snags a bit over 6.5 million hits for tenet, although it is obvious that some of these hits are names (e.g. Tenet Healthcare Corporation) and other uses. Hits for tenant exceed 35.5 million. Apparently a three hundred year head start can really boost your Google ratings. Tenent does have almost a million hits, but it is perhaps a ruse more than a rebirth: many of the sites I saw were redirects for people who misspelled tenant.

Living languages change, and evidence can be found all around. The descendants of the Latin and French verbs for 'to hold' provide good examples of borrowing and semantic change. Even with the title of this blog, semantic change continues, since the office holders in Colson Hall do not rent from the University. In the title The Tenants of Colson Hall, we can take tenant to mean something more like 'people who regularly spend their time somewhere'.

If you have other language questions for this tenant of Colson Hall, please feel free to email me at

Happy Languaging!


  1. I'll admit that the tenants in TCH means something like "inhabitants," but, somehow, The Inmates of Colson Hall didn't sound like a good blog title.

  2. I thought that our weighty thoughts were considered as good as monetary payment. :)

    Teneo. tenes, tenet, tenemus, tenetis, tenent. Aha! tenent = they have. Obviosuly "they" have taken over Colson. You all must be alien invaders.

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  4. I really like "tenants" in TCH. And I didn't even notice the shift in meaning until I started that blog. Meanings are like that. Drives the prescriptivists crazy.