All's 'Fare' in Love and 'Commuting'

Rob Kyff on

Q: Why do we call someone who travels back and forth to work a "commuter"? -- Chris Ryan, New York City

A: This question really hits home for me because my father was the archetypal commuter, taking the train from Westchester County to his advertising job in Manhattan for nearly 40 years. Yup, the full Don Draper -- fedora, attache case, newspaper tucked under his arm.

"Commuter" derives not, as you might think, from "communal" or "common" but from the Latin verb "commutare," meaning "to change or exchange." The verb "commute" entered English during the 1400s with the meaning "to change." That's why government officials are said to "commute" (shorten or rescind) a prisoner's sentence.

By 1800, "commute" had taken on a financial meaning -- "to change one kind of payment into another" -- and by 1845 had acquired the more specific meaning "to pay a single sum instead of a number of successive payments."

During the mid-1800s, railroads and horse-drawn omnibus lines began "commuting" the fares of regular passengers, allowing them to travel at a reduced rate over a given route for a limited number of times or for a certain period. So, even though the transportation companies were doing the commuting, the passengers themselves became known as "commuters."

Q: Is there a difference between "house" and "home"? I think that a house is a structure and a home is where someone lives. I have heard phrases like "zombie homes," meaning abandoned houses. Does that make sense? -- Anne Baldwin, via email

A: Not unless zombies actually lived there, which raises an entirely different set of problems.


Traditionally, "house" refers to a physical structure and "home" to a place where people live or to which they have emotional or familial ties.

But, because "home" bears such warm and fuzzy connotations, many people, especially real estate agents, describe any residential unit as a "home," even if it's a brand-new house that's never been occupied or an empty house where no one has lived for years. (Why am I thinking of the old Granville house that George and Mary Bailey fix up in "It's a Wonderful Life"?). Calling such an abandoned dwelling a "zombie home" is committing "home"icide.

And, as long as we're on the subject of houses, could people -- are you listening, TV newscasters? -- please stop pronouncing "houses" as "HOW-sis" (sounds like "house is") instead of the correct "HOW-ziz" (rhymes with "browses")? Not to be judgy, but if you commute (change) your sentences, I'll commute (reduce) your sentences.


Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Connecticut, invites your language sightings. Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via email to or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.

Copyright 2020 Creators Syndicate Inc.


blog comments powered by Disqus

Social Connections


Ginger Meggs Flo & Friends Rubes Crankshaft David M. Hitch Ed Gamble