Fans of TV shows featuring house-hunting, flipping, flopping, or home improvement may have noticed a new term popping up in more recent episodes: “primary bedroom.” It’s also slowly becoming the norm in real estate descriptions, and even if the term is unfamiliar at first, context clues will tell you that “primary bedroom” can — and, we argue, should — be used in place of “master bedroom.” Here’s why it’s time to make the switch.
What is a primary bedroom?
Simply put, the primary bedroom (previously known as the “master bedroom”) is the largest bedroom in a home, and often has its own attached bathroom. Sometimes, real estate listings refer to it as the “owner’s suite” or “owner’s retreat.”
The use of the term “master bedroom” has been a topic of discussion in real estate and architectural circles for years. In June 2020, the Houston Association of Realtors (HAR) became the first industry group to stop using the term, and others — located in places like Toronto, Cincinnati, and northern Kentucky — have followed suit since.
But there is not yet an industry-wide consensus. The National Association of Realtors has cited a 1995 memo from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development explaining that “master bedroom” was not discriminatory, and didn’t violate fair housing laws, the New York Times reports.
What’s problematic about the term “master bedroom”?
As far as the objections to the term “master bedroom,” the one that’s most frequently cited is the association of the word “master” with slavery. For example, in August 2020, Tanna Young, a real estate agent in Houston told the New York Times that for her, the word “master” evoked images of pre-Civil War plantation life. “Especially as an African American realtor, it always sits in the back of my mind,” she said.
Other criticisms stem from the fact that in real estate terms, traditionally, the word “master” refers to a male head of the household who has domain over the rest of its inhabitants, including household staff, his children, and his wife. In fact, when the HAR announced that they were dropping the term “master bedroom” in June 2020, their statement indicated that more of their members viewed it as sexist than racist, Marketwatch reports, noting that others did see it as racist, as well.
In addition to real estate, the other major industry starting to make the switch is television and other media. For example, you won’t hear the term “master bedroom” on new episodes of HGTV shows, the network recently told House Beautiful (which has also ditched the term) via the following statement:
“HGTV recognises that language matters and we made the conscious decision to use more inclusive terms in our content. The network’s shows — including favourites like Fixer to Fabulous, Flip or Flop, and Good Bones — now use terms like ‘primary’ and ‘main’ when referring to the largest bedroom and bathroom in a home.”
The origins of the term ‘master bedroom’
So how long has the term “master bedroom” been around? Although its specific origins are unclear, according to Merriam-Webster, its first known use was in 1925 (though it doesn’t say where it was used). Currently, its earliest recorded use was in a 1926 Modern Homes catalogue by Sears, Roebuck and Co., back when they sold kits with all the materials needed to built a specific house, which, like the rest of their merchandise, was selected from their catalogue.
Given the timeframe, this doesn’t appear to be a direct reference to slavery, but rather a marketing technique designed to appeal to the “man of the house” (who, it was assumed, was in charge of the family’s major financial decisions).
In addition to lumber, nails, and everything else you’d need to built a house, Sears was selling the American dream of homeownership and making it far more financially accessible than it had ever been. The term “master bedroom” may have been used to reinforce the idea that owning your own home would elevate your status in society.
Does it really matter?
Predictably, the name change has prompted all the usual reactions that follow some type of shift in language away from something racist, ableist, or misogynistic, to something more inclusive.
But the criticism extends beyond the standard remarks (“Cancel culture is out of control!” or “The PC police are at it again!”) to those rooted in frustration about how much more work needs to be done to make housing more equitable.
One such comment came from musician John Legend in a June 2020 tweet. In it, he says that the “real problem” is that “realtors don’t show black people all the properties they qualify for,” and the “fake problem” is using the term “master bedroom,” ending with calling on realtors to “fix the real problem.”
Real problem: realtors don't show black people all the properties they qualify for. Fake problem: calling the master bedroom the master bedroom. Fix the real problem, realtors. https://t.co/Qq7yQ8Gb3g
— John Legend (@johnlegend) June 27, 2020
Legend, as well as others who made related points, aren’t wrong: There are massive, systemic problems when it comes to access to housing in the U.S., and changing the name of a room in a house on real estate listings isn’t going to make them disappear (or even improve). Hearing a reference to a “primary bedroom” on HGTV won’t do anything to address or reverse the lasting effects of redlining and segregation.
But for many people — like Young, the Houston real estate agent we heard from earlier — the words we use everyday do matter. “More work needs to be done, we understand that, but I’m happy that steps are being taken in that direction for change to begin,” she told the New York Times in 2020. “Baby steps can lead to bigger steps.”