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The Surprisingly Dark History of Calling an Apartment a ‘Pad’

The Surprisingly Dark History of Calling an Apartment a ‘Pad’

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Last week, somewhere around the seventh mention of the word “pad” when describing the gorgeous Mid-Century homes of our favorite “Mad Men” characters, we got to thinking. Why on Earth do we use this term for an apartment, and how did it come to be?

One colleague thought it must be like a frog’s lily pad, since we jump from place to place. Another thought it must have something to do with bedding and sleeping.

Little did we know that “pad” is just one of several terms that have roots in the dark underworld of criminology.

Yes, that’s right. “Pad“—which we now use to refer to a room, apartment, or house—was widely used by criminals and even drug users before it entered our mainstream dialogue.

The term dates to 17th-century Britain, when it was used by poor travelers and even criminals to designate a bed made of straw or rags, according to Jesse Sheidlower, a lexicographer and former president of the American Dialect Society.

How it came to be used specifically by this class of people, we aren’t sure. But the term remained in the “underworld” of our language for several centuries before it took hold in the early 20th century, when it was used to refer to any room or place in which drug users gathered, or the beds on which they slept. Think “crash pad”—specifically a place where someone could recover from taking heroin or opium, Sheidlower said.

“Since the word was used by criminals, it became used to refer to places where criminal activity occurred,” Sheidlower said.

“By the ’60s, it was in use in hippie language,” he added. “It was not predominantly associated with criminality, but it was also not something associated with nonhippies.”

Many terms come from underworld use

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Using slang that originated with criminals isn’t that uncommon, Sheidlower noted. There are a few examples of terms that made their way into mainstream use through beatnik or hipster slang in the 1950s. For instance, the term “groovy” originally goes back to the 1930s in jazz slang, but became characteristic of the 1960s by hippies, he said.

Much like “pad,” the slang term “crib” was also used widely by criminals in America in the 19th century to refer to a prostitute’s apartment or room. Somehow, it chiefly became used in black English in the 1930s, 1940s, and beyond, Sheidlower said. (For example, it was used frequently in Claude Brown‘s “Manchild in the Promised Land,” written in 1965.)

It fell out of use in other places but remained in use among the African-American population—right up until present day.

“When it appears in rap music, it’s not because they’re adopting criminal slang,” Sheidlower said. “It’s because it’s an African-American term—period.”

How did we get here?

Today, we typically think about “pads” as apartments—not houses or anything much bigger, and there’s a reason for that, too.

“It generally refers to a smaller residence. When people were referring to a place to stay, they wouldn’t be talking about a mansion—these were criminals or poor young people,” Sheidlower said. “Nowadays if you were going to refer to a large home as a pad, it would be an ironic kind of thing.”

So how did we start using criminal slang? It’s hard to say who picked it up from the beatniks and began using it in everyday scenarios.

“Something becomes increasingly widespread and gets used by a broader range of people,” Sheidlower said. “People find it amusing or entertaining or expressive, and people start using it.”

Have some real estate slang you’d like us to investigate? Put it in the comments or email news@realtor.com and we’ll look into it! 

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