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April 28th, 2014

Difficult Words No 11: Hospitality

BY Christian Ford

There’s a particular irony to SnapChat’s moment of social media nowness.  It’s the idea that we need a technology to help us lose the things we say to each other.  As it is, we have a mechanism that thoroughly cloaks our meanings not only from each other, but from ourselves — language.  “Choose your words carefully,” goes the saying, intimating a tiptoe amongst sleeping alligators.  But that’s easier said than done because the living always make do with words that belong to the departed.

Take, for instance, “hospitality.”  We know what it is to be hospitable, but no sooner do we think the word than echoes appear.  Why do “hospitals” seem so inhospitable?  Why does a “host” greet you as you enter a restaurant, instead of manning the desk at the place they seem to belong, a “hostel?”  And why is a hostel not a hotel and a hospital not a hospice?

All this would have been much easier for the Romans.  Hospitium, they would have thought, and then — using their language with case-endings — they could have spoken forms of that single word to indicate the person or thing the word referred to.  The long transmutation of Latin into French and then into English (with an assist from the Norman Invasions), produced a constellation of words, some of which sound similar but have diverging meanings, and some of which sound utterly different but converge into a single meaning.

All of it orbits around what happens when a potential host meets a hopeful guest.  Talk to a hospitable citizen of the Roman Empire, and you’d quickly discover that “host” is hospes.  But then he’d tell you that “guest” is hospes, too.   For the Roman, hospitality wasn’t a vaporous notion, it was solid and tangible, a thing to which both host and guest had a relationship independent of their relationship to one another.  “Here is hospitality,” the Latin seems to say.  “Whether you are the giver or receiver makes little difference, because next time the roles may be reversed.”

There’s an echo of this in the way friends will alternate hosting dinner for one another, but we understand it as common courtesy.  The Romans, by comparison, were hearing a very different echo, one that came from across the Ionian Sea.

Before the Romans, the Greeks had their own relationship with hospitality and it went by the name of xenia.  It translates as “guest-friendship” and it casts a big shadow; Homer’s Odyssey is largely a catalog of guests and hosts demonstrating the entire range of guest-friendship, from the Phaeacians, who are perfect hosts despite never having encountered a stranger, to the cyclops Polyphemus, who responds to the reminder that he should be a good host by eating some of Odysseus’ men.  All this, while a crowd of freeloaders move into Odysseus’ house and relentlessly hit on his wife.

Homeric hospitality was a more than manners, it was a matter of life and death.  Xenia was a sacred obligation and to keep ancient Greeks from becoming forgetful, Zeus himself was often known as Zeus Xenios, protector of travelers, with a habit of showing up at one’s door in the guise of a lowly stranger to test the strength of a mortal’s commitment to xenia.  Not a test you’d want to fail.

There’s an undercurrent of ominousness to this imperative to hospitality, and again the words give us the clue.  Hospes, while meaning both guest and host, doesn’t stop there.  It also means “stranger,” and “foreigner.”  The otherness embedded in this Latin word parallels its Greek forbear xenia, which emerges from the Greek root xenos, “foreigner” or “stranger.”  There’s a distinct edge of hostility within the term, a sense that it’s a slippery slope between someone you don’t know and someone who is fundamentally alien.  Xenophobia, anyone?

The undercurrent is persistent.  Take a look behind the curtain of “host.”  Our modern sense of host fluctuates between your friend giving a dinner party, that guy emceeing a TV show, or a benign greeter.  But there’s another kind.

It mostly survives in the bible, where we hear tell of the “heavenly host” or a “host of angels.”  It’s a word that emerges out of the close cousin of hospes —hostis.  It’s another word that means stranger, but one which makes explicit the hostile (hostis again) inference by also meaning “enemy.”  A host, it turns out, is either (a) one person welcoming you, or (b) a bunch of armed men coming to give you an entirely different kind of welcome.

This bewildering blend of succor and implicit death proves to be pervasive when you look back at where we started, with hospitality, and it’s uncomfortable cousin hospital.   Originally, a hospital was simply a site of hospitality, a place of welcome for travelers.  On a small scale, you could think of it as a dedicated guest room.  If you had enough guest rooms, it could be an inn.  But that’s not exactly right.

Travel was a very different thing when these words were taking shape in the middle ages.  Virtually everyone lived their entire lives in what we would today consider a commuting radius.  Journeys were difficult and the world was a large, ominous unknown.  Sailors traveled, but they took their homes with them.  The nobility, too, had a home wherever they went, because other nobles were obligated to host them, or be humiliated for failing to do so.

For the common people, however, travel — if it came — usually came in the form of a religious pilgrimage, often a once-in-a-lifetime event.  It was to serve the needs of these pilgrims that “hospitals” emerged, commonly attached to religious institutions.  In keeping with the gift-in-one-hand-sword-in-the-other nature of our topic, we see the appearance, in the middle ages, of the Knights Hospitallers, warrior-innkeepers chartered to take care of pilgrims to the Holy Land.

A thousand-mile trek through completely alien cultures can be wearing, so it’s not surprising that many pilgrims needed more than a bed and a hot meal.  Caring for the unwell, the first glimmer of our sense of hospital, was simply part of what it meant to be welcoming to a traveler.  What’s more, a hospital dedicated to healing would have looked remarkably similar to any other kind of building where one could find a place to lie down.  The footprint of medical technology was barely a shadow 1000 years ago, and so the difference between a hospital (resting spot for the weary traveler) and a hospital (resting spot for the life-weary) would have been marginal, indeed.

What’s more interesting than the architecture is the medieval mindset’s exceedingly fine line between caring for the body and caring for the spirit.  We, of course, have drawn that line boldly.  Our hospitals are astonishingly complex mechanisms single-mindedly devoted to the maintenance of physical life and it would not be an exaggeration to say that they sometimes produce miracles.  But they are miracles of the flesh rather than the spirit, and perhaps that’s why hospitals and hospitality seem such ill-suited companions to us.

Were we to travel 1000 years back and partake of that era’s hospitality, I have no doubt that we would return very different.  We’d be changed by the sheer physical test of existence, of a world powered entirely with muscle, of expecting no cures other than the ones your body can produce, of being cold, or hot, or dirty for months on end.  It would be overwhelming.  But it would pale beside the other test, the one of walking daily with death.  King or commoner, no one was ever untouched.  It was universal, inescapable, inexplicable.  Even in good years, the children died in droves, the mothers following apace, the survivors saying a prayer and carrying on because that’s what survivors do.

When I’m able to push my imagination into that place, where the strongest sense of life is that it is fleeting, then the different words and meanings seem to collapse out of their tangle of contradictions and into something simple.  The dusty figure outside the threshold, the wary face opening the door, they look at one another knowing nothing in this moment but that the other is “other.”  Perhaps even an enemy.  But the impulse to hospitality, for gatekeeper and traveler to set aside those identities and both become hospes, suggests a deeper understanding, that we are all guests in this world, that being strangers is affliction enough, and that welcome is the only cure.


In the Tent by Charles Roffey
At the Co-Op by Caro Wallis
In Berlin by Seven Resist
On the Subcontinent by Ramesh NG
In Dett Zing Zing Bar by Mani Babbar Photography
Underfoot by McKay Savage
In Embrace by Dvidshub