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shameless pleading

Arms

Well, the Super’s name is Earl Duke.

Dear Word Detective: Why are apartment buildings known as “arms”? — Jane Bellotti.

That’s an interesting question, and although I first answered it more than a decade ago, when I went back to check on what I had written and to see whether it could be expanded (as I always do), I found myself wandering in an unexpected direction.

It seems that back in 1945, a fellow named Arthur Minton published an article in American Speech (the journal of the American Dialect Association) entitled “Apartment-House Names.”  Minton’s focus was primarily the five boroughs of New York City, where, he estimated, one fourth of the apartment buildings at that time had names.  Approximately one-third of those names included the words “Court” or “Arms,” and a lesser but still significant number of buildings ended in “Hall” (e.g., “Harrowick Hall,” etc.).  The remainder of named buildings sported less grandiose names such as “Terrace,” “Gardens,” “Towers” and “Plaza.”  New York being New York, some people didn’t know when to stop, and Minton mentions such florid creations as the “Manor Palace” and the “Palais de Mosholu” (on Mosholu Parkway in the Bronx).  At the other end of the scale, he found the weirdly recursive “Arms Apartments,” also in the Bronx, whose name, Minton notes, “suggests an unprecedented exhaustion of the imagination.”

The terms “Hall,” “Court” and “Arms” in the names of apartment buildings are preceded in most cases by British or pseudo-British personal or place names (“Kensington Arms,” “Mountbatten Court,” etc.) that attempt to lend an air of historical grandeur, prestige and tradition to what is, in most cases, a fairly utilitarian building.  But while such grandiose names for apartment houses are largely an American affectation, we got the idea from the Brits themselves.

Back when England was awash with Dukes, Earls and similar nobility, many happy centuries before motel and restaurant chains, the local inn or pub (or, indeed, the whole town) frequently sat on land owned by the Duke of Earl, or whomever.  This was also a time when many people were illiterate.  So pubs and inns relied on highly recognizable graphic signs, perhaps calling themselves “The Blue Swan,” signified for non-readers by a blue swan on the sign.  In many cases, the most recognizable symbol in town was the coat of arms of the local nobility, so if one paid rent to the Duke of Norfolk, it made sense to feature the Norfolk family coat of arms on your sign and to call your establishment “the Norfolk Arms.”

Incidentally, although today we use “coat of arms” to mean the heraldic insignia of a noble family or other group, usually featuring a shield, a motto and perhaps some fierce animals,    the original meaning took “coat” very literally.  A “coat of arms” was a linen or silk coat, worn by a knight over his armor on formal occasions, and decorated with his (or his sponsor’s) heraldic emblem.

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