Guest Op-Ed: The Verbal Stew Lexicon

By Alison Barnet

The subject is light. As in shedding light on the words we use. This new lexicon could also be called ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes.’

•Apartment and Unit

I suppose the word apartment, when first used, sounded cold, but nothing sounds colder than unit. Cold and faintly obscene, as in “How big is your unit?” Like it or not, the world at large has put all of us in units. Consider: only a few years ago, utility companies sent bills to apt. 2, and now, although we didn’t ask them to, they send bills to unit 2. Larger bills, of course. The assumption is that we all live in condominiums—or soon will—and that’s exactly what corporations and developers hope, considering the great fortunes to be made off our backs.

Long gone are the days of ads that read:

One BR apt. Top floor. Owner-occupied building. On bus line. $300/mo. htd.

An ad for the very same place, condoized, reads:

Stylish two-bedroom unit boasting the finishes and convenience in demand in this exciting location. Features include a fireplaced living room, hardwood floors, private deck, and direct access parking. $3 million+

And the neighborhood around it will be described as “vibrant.”


Some developers of condo complexes have the rudiments of a social conscience—or are forced to have one—and set aside a small percentage of affordable units; in other words, living spaces for people who can’t afford the unaffordable units that people in more fortunate circumstances can afford. In the past, no one ever used the word affordable in this context, because, generally speaking, all housing was affordable—if not, how could anyone afford to live here? While rents in those days did, of course, vary, no one considered a high rent normal and a low rent affordable. “A good deal” and “a better deal” sufficed. Ironically, in today’s mean housing market, affordable isn’t affordable even to the people it’s purported to be affordable to. To qualify for an affordable apartment in many new buildings, your income must be pretty high.

We never use the words unaffordable or unsubsidized to refer to the living quarters of the well-to-do. Market rate (a term even colder than unit) is never pejorative the way affordable and subsidized are. Even liberals feel free to describe people by saying, “Well, you know, she lives in affordable housing.” Affordable is a negative and often synonymous with diverse—if there are any non-white people in the complex, this is where they live.


The first of the month has lost its punch, because the concept of landlord, landlady, rent, and tenant are out, and condo owner or, more typically, luxury condo owner, is in. (Aren’t all condos, no matter their condition, luxury?) Countless former homes and apartment buildings have “gone condo,” and gone with them the concept that living in a rented apartment can be a viable option. Homeownership is now everyone’s goal and we’ve started thinking there’s something wrong with being a tenant. “He’s just a renter,” condo owners say with disdain of a poor shlump without a granite countertop or a backyard parking spot.

How about worth? Condo owners are always saying their place is worth so much more than it was when they bought it. But to those of us who’ve been around a while, its worth is just about what it always was, except that the asking price, assessments and taxes have escalated wildly.

Luxury is luxury because the developers say it is, and saying makes it so. Luxury is an added boost to the self-esteem of a young master of the universe who’s already brimming over with self-importance. It’s a massage for a buyer who doesn’t need another massage. He looks at the LUXURY TOWN HOMES FOR SALE sign posted on a dilapidated dump and sees a “fireplaced living room” with bamboo floors and maybe an onyx bath—they’re the latest thing. Sorry, but my own definition of luxury involves a history—not a dump one day and lavish loft the next. I also think the real luxury is space—does anyone have it anymore? By the way, whatever happened to being embarrassed by pretentiousness?Alison Barnet is a South End resident and former editor of the South End News.

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