Words: Hostess

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Children taken to parties used to be told to behave and to be sure to say a nice thank you to the hostess, most likely remembered as a stately dame with what the French would call beaucoup de monde au balcon. Later, hostesses presided (always the word) over the afternoon teacakes and scones, and were gracious. Modern hostesses of this sort have little in common with the wide-eyed 17-year-old "Soho hostess" who, according to reports, befriended the Tory MP Piers Merchant, apart from the name they share.

It makes you think how vague English is, but it's good to know that the Romans who gave us the word were even more imprecise. The hospes (feminine hospita could be either the host or the guest; hospites were friends of whom one was entertaining the other, with no distinction as to which was which. To confuse matters further, a hospes could be either a friend or a stranger, because of the tradition of giving hospitality to travellers, so that all innkeepers were called hospes or hosts.

Hostis, a related word, had also meant a stranger - thence an enemy, thence a hostile army, and, in its English version, any large number of people or even things - the multitude of the heavenly host, say, or the hosts of guests whom a host invited to his party, as well as the host of things they discussed at it. None of this is to do with the host which is the consecrated bread of the Eucharist and which comes from the quite different hostia, a sacrificial victim. I'm surprised that the inclusivists, who like to refer to Spitfire pilots as "he or she", haven't got to work on hostess, seeing that a female prostitute may be described as a hostess while a male one is seldom called a host. We're as bad as the ancient Greeks, for whom a hetaira was a female companion or a tart, according to context.

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