“Flat”

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As I say, NOOB readers predicted “flat”–AmE equivalent, “apartment”–would catch on here, and so it seems to have, judging from the above and similar advertisements. The term is, in my experience, largely restricted to commercial attempts to fancy up a dwelling, rather than being a word an actual American person would use.

Except in San Francisco, Nancy Friedman reports: “One of the things that struck me when I moved to the Bay Area 40+ years ago [from Southern California] was that San Franciscans ALWAYS said ‘flat’ instead of ‘apartment.’ I’d never heard the term at all, and I grew up 370 miles away. It’s still true, and I still have no idea why.”

36 responses to ““Flat”

  1. Nice to see that such a hum-drum word is developing a US caché. In Britain the respective expressions are apprehended somewhat differently.

    For example if you are student in the UK on minimal income, a sole-occupancy flat ideally with its own private entrance (sole or shared) is the ideal descendng therefrom, via abultaory coveniences, into sharing (all students but fairly unstructured), digs (a room in an otherwise family home), crash pad (ending up on the floor of the last person with whom you shared your post-prandial bevoir), the local undergrowth (one night accommodation al-fresco – used only if bus fare funding/shoe leather are deficient), or – perhaps worst of all – in the local bridewell, awaiting charge or release – usually not really one-star rating, but realtively cheap given that a cup of tea may sometimes be on offer.

    Apartment is the de rigeur vogue expression for flats with more than a dozen windows, a reasonable address, a location perhps only 20 per cent of all UK-born residents could afford, plus the chance to be featured in a glossy magazine that costs more than the average UK student’s housiing allowance.

    Of course if you’ve really hit the big time in London, you look for quarters, accommodations or (if you want to get on) unique opportunities (qv).

  2. Apartment and duplex usage both, in the UK, try to achieve some international cachet among the highest end. I’m still not sure what a duplex is.

    • I think a duplex is a semi-detached cottage or house. I only found this out a few days ago though and I might be wrong.

    • Duplex: a word we borrowed from America which our estate agents use to mean a two-storey apartment or flat.

      • In australia a duplex as relating to housing is a semi detached house. Commonly a 1970’s design and undesirable. A flat is a apartment, of uninspiring design in a massive building and was often a welfare housing solution.

  3. In the UK, apartment is simply a word for flat, usually used by estate agents – apparently, it sounds fancier. Neither the quality of the accommodation, nor the location, nor the price seems to make any difference.

  4. “I’ve a cosy little flat in
    What is known as old Manhattan….”
    Lorenz Hart, 1925 or earlier.

    In Britain, our flats aren’t always flat. If a dwelling is split over two floors and is part of a taller building and then it’s a split-level or two-storey flat.
    The word ‘flat’ is seen by many as an uninspiring little monosyllable and is more often used in negative contexts: flat broke, flat tyre, flat refusal… . I think this could be why the word ‘apartment’ has been borrowed buy our estate agents to lend grandeur to any flat. In recent years ‘apartment’ has spread to almost all estate agents although I don’t hear British people using it in popular speech.
    It strikes me as odd that American speakers should adopt ‘flat’ and I would love to know what is behind it.

    • A kiss may be grand
      But it won’t pay the rental
      On your humble flat
      Or help you at the automat.

      Diamonds Are A Girls Best Friend – Gordon and Martin, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, 1949

    • Re. “I would love to know what is behind it.” Many Americans like to shorten terminology for the economy of speaking and writing…unless we’re being politically correct, in which we introduce a two- or three-word term where formerly a single word would do.

    • Not forgetting that great 1930s song The Lullaby of Broadway:
      Hush-a-bye, I’ll buy you this and that
      You hear a daddy saying
      And baby goes home to her flat
      To sleep all day

  5. There are plenty of towns call flat in the west. In particular, there’s a small town near Mt Shasta in California called Big Flat.There used to be a pizza place there with the classic name Big Flat Pizza.

  6. In Sacramento a flat is one floor of an old house that has been converted into apartments. One apt. per floor. And it has been in use since, at least, the early ’70s…

  7. One reason to use apartment in Britain is when it’s not /all on one level/ so not a ‘flat’ !

    Same for duplex.

    Thus I occasionally say I live in a Duplex Apartment (purpose built, internal staircase) though I would still call the whole block a block of flats even though all are apartments.

    Scotland of course has its own specialist terminology (‘lands’) and Scots estate agents mix and match.

    Little Egret in Walton-on-Thame

  8. The BrE “flat” for AmE “apartment” always seemed to me to be, well, rather flat, in the sense of ordinary or uninspired. “Apartment,” meanwhile, is hardly better…rhymes with “compartment.” I’m not sure I’d want to reside in either a drabby flat or some confined compartment. (I know, I know — exceptions abound.)

    Google defines a “duplex” as “a house divided into two apartments, with a separate entrance for each.” In the parts of America in which I’ve lived, that has always meant side by side, not up and down as Michawl suggests, or perhaps in San Francisco. I grew up in a duplex in western Pennsylvania, but we called it a “double house.” I never heard the word duplex until much later in life.

    • Y’see, I would call that a maisonette.

      • I had to look up “maisonette.” My guess would be “a small house,” but that didn’t make sense in context. One online def’n which appears to apply is “An apartment occupying two or more floors of a larger building and often having its own entrance from outside. [French maisonnette, diminutive of maison, house, dwelling, from Old French, from Latin mānsiō, mānsgiōn-; see mansion.]” Here in America, we call that a “townhouse.” Grammarly gives two definitions, the first being what I’d have assumed, the second being “an apartment often on two floors.” There you go.

      • I’m not entirely sure what constitutes a maisonette, at least to an estate agent, but I recall that a town house in the US usually translates as a terrace house in the UK – a terrace is a row of houses each with a common wall between them. I live in the middle house of a terrace of three so I share common walls with both my neighbours.

        The alternatives for houses are detached houses and semi-detached, often abbreviated to just semi, which is two houses with a common wall.

        I think a maisonette has to have different occupancies on different floors. I recall a friend used to live in what was described as a maisonette. His part of the building occupied just the ground floor, and there was another dwelling upstairs. What distinguished that from flats was that both dwellings had separate street entrances, as opposed to the flat I lived in at the time where the street entrance led to a communal stairwell.

      • Continuing, once again, to refine these definitions, Dormouse’s “semi” is the “double house” in which I grew up. A “detached house,” I suppose, is simply what we Yanks call a “house.” Further, what I glean from that same reply is a difference between stand-alone over-under configurations is that flats have the stairwell to the second abode on the inside and that maisonettes have the stairwell on the outside. I wonder, is it bigger on the inside?😉

  9. Here is Australia, as usual, we use both flat and apartment. People might say they live in a block of flats. But they would be referred to as ‘apartment-dwellers’. But do none of you call it a “unit” ?

  10. A “unit” here in America, when referring to structures, usually refers to a storage unit, a rentable boxy room, one of many in a row, for storing one’s possessions temporarily, whether short-term or long-term.

    With respect to apartments, people who own or manage an apartment complex will refer to apartments as units (perhaps stemming from the thought of what income each “unit” will bring?), but I’ve never heard a renter refer to his or her apartment as a unit.

    • In the UK, a Unit is often used to describe a property on an industrial estate. E.g., an address for such a business might be “Dumbledore’s Furniture Warehouse, Unit 7, Pugglesworth Industrial Estate”.

      • Speaking of estates, I notice in British cop dramas that suspects often live in an estate, not in a manor house surrounded by lush acreage, but in an apartment in what appears to be multistory low-rent housing. I don’t know if this is an industrial estate or some other kind as, to me, an industrial estate would be an area housing one or more industries with no residential units.

      • hah15 (can’t reply to your message).

        That would be a council estate, an area of housing built by the local government.

        An industrial estate is a non-residential area containing work shops and the like.

      • Dormouse, yes, it’s a shame that WordPress nests only two levels. Thanks for “council estate.” That’s the term I wanted.

  11. In New Zealand, there is the term “to flat”, which means sharing a house or lodging in somebody else’s house.

    A “unit” is a bit like a semi-detached or terraced bungalow would be in the UK, i.e. part of a single story block (sorry if I didn’t explain that very well!)

  12. “Accommodations” still seems very un-English (ie feels wrong), although, of course, we have always used “apartment”: “flat” was a shorter, jazzy, modern term, I think.

  13. Contra hah15, I’d assert that in the US “unit” is used even by laypeople when speaking of an apartment in a condominium development — your dwelling is a “condo unit,” a “condo,” or merely a “unit.” Sometimes, indeed, it appears that “condo” is used as, practically, a synonym for “apartment.” Sample sentence: “When they got divorced, she kept the house and he moved into a condo.” In New York City a duplex is a two-story apartment; the side-by-side (or top-and-bottom) house division usage is less familiar.

    • I concede when you bring in condo(minium)s, a term we hadn’t yet discussed. Yes, in NYC, condos can equate to apartments, which can be quite large compared to the smaller ones out here in the sticks, where the term condo, when used, more typically refers to what we normally call a townhouse, or in your usage, a duplex.

    • The difference being, a condo you buy, an apartment you rent. During the huge housing ‘bubble’ a few years ago many apartments were converted to condos. The people living in them had two choices…move or buy the place at highly inflated prices.

  14. The defining properties of an Australian unit are:
    (1) No indoor shared spaces, e.g. no indoor staircases, corridors, etc.
    (2) One or two storeys. (I suppose there could be some with three, but after that I imagine you’d want an indoor staircase/lift.)
    (2) Typically a small number of homes. This is fuzzier, because you do get large unit blocks, but a three homes downstairs and three homes upstairs is common.

    What’s the equivalent in your country?

    Flats/apartments are so rare in Australia that there’s hardly ever a need to mention them. But units are everywhere.

  15. I’ve also heard Jimmy Cagney use the word “flat” in some movie whose name escapes me, but it must have been made in the mid-1930s.

  16. Overheard in an Oxford cafe yesterday afternoon. An American* voice, “I’ll have to find an apartment to share with some flat-mates.”

    *Not Canadian.

  17. hah15; the estate you refer to is called a housing estate. Some are owned by charitable trusts, the best known of which is the Peabody (19th century American philanthropist George Peabody provided housing for the poor of London). Later on, housing estates were built by local government councils or by housing associations.

  18. The great Philip Roth has invariably used “flat” when referring to his Depression and World War Two-era Newark family abode. Just saying.

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