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Why People Call Apartments ‘Pads’

The slang term has a sordid past

(Richard Baker/In Pictures/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

You crash at your friend’s pad, party in a swanky pad, and long to upgrade from your current pad to a house to call your own. Don Draper and Carrie Underwood had expansive, expensive bachelor/ette pads. But why, exactly, has the word “pad” come to mean an apartment? Rachel Stults of Real Estate News has the answer — and it’s surprisingly bleak.

The word may now be associated with a place to live, but in 17th-century Britain, it was connected to the life of a criminal, Stults reports. She spoke with Jesse Sheidlower, a lexicographer and dialect specialist who dates the term to Britain, where it was “used by poor travelers and even criminals to designate a bed made of straw or rags.”

Sound grim? It gets worse. Sheidlower tells Stults that the term kept its underworld associations into the 20th century, when it burst into the mainstream as a gathering place for drug users, “specifically a place where someone could recover from taking heroin or opium.” By the 1960s, Sheidlower says, the term was used by hippies without the drug association, and at some point it migrated over into general use.

Unlike slang with more cheery origins like “OK” (an editorial joke) and “hubba hubba” (a strange mishmash of German and military misunderstandings), “pad” seems to have made its way into American dialect directly from criminal culture. That’s not uncommon, notes Stults — several other terms, like “crib” and “groovy,” started in criminal culture, made their way to beatnik slang or black English, then morphed into mainstream usage.

So is “pad”’s sordid past a reason to stop using the word? Probably not…if it’s used correctly. “It generally refers to a smaller residence,” Sheidlower tells Stults. “Nowadays if you were going to refer to a large home as a pad, it would be an ironic kind of thing.”

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