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Great debate: Dorm vs. residence hall

Jenna Johnson

I wrote a story for Monday's newspaper about colleges letting faculty members live in the dorms -- er, residence halls.

Lately, university housing officials have been trying their best to kill the word "dorm." Many of them say the word invokes the image of prison-style living and doesn't play up all of the added features of residing on campus.

Auburn University Housing and Residence Life explains it this way on its Web site: "To us, the word dorm means a place to hang your hat and sleep. Is that all you want? We want you to have more!"

Right before school started, I attended a breakfast with fellow higher ed reporters and local college spokespeople. At some point, someone accidentally dropped the d-word -- and was quickly corrected. Then came the pleading from a few: Please, please stop using the hated word "dorm" in stories.

The problem is, everyone still likes calling them dorms. Especially reporters. Residence halls just seems so stuffy and corporate.

Plus, "dorm" is only four characters, while "residence hall" is 14 -- and in the age of Twitter and shrinking space in the newspaper, every character counts. (A good friend of mine with years of RA-ing experience once scolded me for using "dorm" in a tweet. A tweet!)

But maybe I am totally wrong. Which do you prefer?

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By Jenna Johnson  | September 27, 2010; 11:23 AM ET
Categories:  News Overload  | Tags:  Auburn University  
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While I admit I am currently in a student affairs masters program ("ground zero" for the residence hall over dorm phenomenon), I do believe that words are chosen for a reason. The root word in dormitory is dormire, the Latin for "to sleep." Based on the etymology, it does indeed imply that these buildings are only used for sleeping.

The reason those in my field object to the usage of "dorm" is that it implies our line of work is not necessary in higher education. It suggests that the only place where learning happens is in the classroom, ignoring the multitude of lessons students access when living in these buildings, through roommate conflicts, learning about those different from themselves, understanding what it means to represent their peers in a representative government, and participating in those late-night, impromptu conversations.

Yes, it's tough to tweet residence hall, but I'd argue that if you as a blogger/reporter are attempting to catch the best possible snapshot of residential higher education, you're going to stay away from a word that is anachronistic and not representative of what occurs in the buildings you're describing. I've seen "res hall" used before, so perhaps that could be a shorter option.

Posted by: bergerc | September 28, 2010 6:53 AM | Report abuse

I think using "hall" for a shortened version of "residence hall" is fine. That's just as many letters as "dorm."

Also, to say "Lately, university housing officials have been trying their best to kill the word "dorm."" is a bit innacurate. The preference for the term "residence hall" goes back at least 20 years if not longer.

Posted by: pbplus2 | September 28, 2010 4:21 PM | Report abuse

As a student I said, "Do you live in the dorms? Which one?"

I live in ______ Hall was the response. I never, ever heard anyone say, " I live in the residence halls, do you?"

Hall was used with the proper noun name.
Dorms was used as the plural noun. I never heard a student that wasn't an RA or involved in the Student Association use the term "residence hall".

Full disclosure: i'm old by the standards of today's college students, also from the midwest. Could be a regional thing.

Posted by: celestun100 | September 29, 2010 1:23 AM | Report abuse

The root word in dormitory is dormire, the Latin for "to sleep." Based on the etymology, it does indeed imply that these buildings are only used for sleeping.
Posted by: bergerc

Residence, from reside (Origin:
1425–75; late ME residen < MF resider < L residēre, equiv. to re- re- + -sidēre, comb. form of sedēre to sit). So "residence hall" implies that these buildings are only used for sitting.

Call it a dorm and everyone knows what you're talking about. Call it a residence hall and you just sound pretentious.

Posted by: I-270Exit1 | October 1, 2010 11:09 AM | Report abuse

My daughter is in college in Canada. There the term residence hall is usual, and the short form is "res", as in, "Do you live in res? Which hall?"

Posted by: OtterB | October 4, 2010 9:11 AM | Report abuse

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