The Amateur Word Nerd: Do you live in the king’s ‘arms’?

By Barbara MacAllister

Word of the Day: Arms

You know arms as part of anatomy or as guns, but did you ever wonder why some buildings use the term? It was popular at some point to call apartment houses “arms.” Even today we have Barker Mill Arms in Auburn and Old Port Arms in Portland. Places named Hall, Court, Terrace or Gardens are straigh forward, but the use of Arms is puzzling. Do the structures resemble arms on a person, like building “wings”? Does it have anything to do with weaponry?
It turns out that it has nothing to do with structure or appearance. Arms is a reflection our English heritage and the feudal system.
The term is an American affectation borrowed from the British, dating back to when most of the land in England was owned by nobility. Inns and public houses that sat on an aristocrat’s property displayed their coat of arms as the most easily identifiable graphic for an illiterate population. A coat of arms was at one time an actual coat emblazoned with a knight’s crest and worn on formal occasions. The term was abbreviated to eventually mean just the emblem itself. If the neighborhood pub was on the Duke of Chesterfield’s land, the Chesterfield family crest was over the door and locals would lift pint at the Chesterfield Arms.
Ironically, freedom-loving Americans adopted the term, liking the sound but largely unaware of its undemocratic origins.>