For some time now, realtors have been quietly eliminating the term ‘master bedroom’ from home descriptions out of concerns over its connotation.
The nation’s conversation about race prompted many to take a new look at common terms like master bedroom that may have an unintended meaning.
Imagine the term’s first documented appearance. It came in the description of what was at the time the largest home in the Sears catalog. Yes, the Sears catalog used to sell homes, too. Imagine a two-story home that was the most expensive home in the 1926 edition. It would set you back a whopping $4,398. (Some larger homes have mortgage payments that high today.)
The Trelora Real Estate blog reports the home featured “a sunporch, built-in kitchen cupboards, and a ‘master’s’ bedroom with a ‘private’ bathroom.”
Fast forward 67 years when I moved into an apartment for the first time. The floor plans included a “master bedroom.” By then, master’s had become master.
By today’s standards — even by yesterday’s — it evokes the master/slave relationship when owners of enslaved people lorded over them. Since the death of George Floyd, such terms began receiving new scrutiny. That scrutiny materialized as part of a larger conversation about race relations.
The Houston Association of Realtors recently said it will use “primary” to describe bedrooms and bathrooms. The decision came after several of the group’s members called for a review of the terms.
In a statement, the group said the updates were among nine requests for review. But they stopped short of calling it a “ban” on master bedroom and master bathroom.
But did the term really refer to slavery?
It’s not clear, it’s worth noting, that someone used “master bedroom” as a reference to slavery. After all, 61 years elapsed from the end of slavery in 1865 to that catalog listing of 1926.
It might seem a bit odd that they’d wait that long to bring that topic back up.
The Online Etymology Dictionary says master came from Old English. It referred to “a man having control or authority over a place; a teacher or tutor of children,” from Latin magister, “chief, head, director, teacher.”
Back in the 12th century, master referred to a “man eminently or perfectly skilled in something.” It could also describe “one who is the chief teacher of another (in religion, philosophy, etc.), religious instructor, spiritual guide.”
Despite the older definitions, some people hear the word and still make the connection to slavery. Some of us would never even have noticed such a possible connection.
Since primary conveys the same meaning as master, it’s probably a good idea to make the change. That way, you at least lose the potential negative connotation.
And everyone has a clearer picture of what you actually meant.