The etymology of “space” and “room”.
“I’m looking for space.”
When we hear that phrase, we generally don’t think that the speaker is searching for a planetarium, or that they’re looking for room to grow (in which case, they would have said, “Give me some space, please.”) We assume rather that this is a real estate issue. We assume they are looking for lodgings or a place for their business.
Often, buried within commonplace phraseologies are strange semantic coincidences; in this case the fact that “space” means both the wide open spaces of the cosmos and the cramped, enclosed space of a studio apartment or a garret. Curiously, there is a related word that leads the same kind of double life. When we talk about needing “room,” we are of course looking for open space. But if we are looking for a room, we are looking for an enclosed space. We can also speak of a room itself as being roomy, which would drive a person learning English as a second language to distraction. Speaking abstractly, we can note room for improvement or make room in our schedule.
If we go back to the Indo-European root from which “room” derives, we find that it means simply “to open” or “space.” In fact, early speakers of English would have referred to the wide open spaces as rum. (The word “space” comes into English from French.) The same root that gives us the English “room” developed into the Latin words “rural” and “rustic,” meaning having to do with the open lands.
I came to think about these words and dig up their etymologies after visiting prospective colleges with my daughter. Most of what you need to find out about the education offered at a college, you can find out about in printed material, on a web site, or in a phone conversation. You visit the college to get a feel for the people, but also, I discovered, you go there to get a feel for the space, for what kind of room you are going to occupy. So you look at the overall campus and you look at lots and lots of rooms: libraries, dorm rooms, classrooms, cubicles and so forth.
Overall my daughter was seeking a feel for what it would be like to inhabit the greater confines of the school. We began to divide the places we looked at into two categories: enclaves and open spaces. The open space colleges were contained within big cities. To get from one building to another, you crossed busy urban thoroughfares. You knew you were at the school from the signs on the buildings. The smaller town enclave college enveloped you in quads and carefully coifed inner spaces. As you moved about the campus, you always felt enclosed within its bosom. Each had it charms. The best seemed to have a nice balance of each quality, like Central Park both a enclave and a vast space.
This caused me to think about how in everyday life we move from enclaves to open spaces, and in general we like to have some of each. I so often encounter spaces ill-fitted to their uses. Where an enclave is needed for concentration to occur, it’s poorly designed for the purpose and too exposed. Where open space is wanted, there is too much obstruction. We see this in offices. We see it in cities. We see it in our own homes.
Now that feng shui has become a fad, its injunctions can seem laughable. Wealthy people will spend $100,000 to move walls to create a space more conducive to wealth. But the original spirit behind feng shui and geomancy altogether comes from the fundamental human appreciation for the interplay between closed and open spaces, the desire to have both enclaves and expanses. Design is not a trivial issue. It can even be a spiritual issue.
Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche understood this and openly proclaimed it in many ways. One of his most masterful demonstrations of the significance of finding space within space was an exhibition he did called “Discovering Elegance,” at the Laica Gallery in Los Angeles in December 1980. The work was motivated by the principle of “art in everyday life.”
A series of arranged rooms-kitchen, library, garden, drum room, buddha room, warrior room and audience hall-conveyed how the simple arrangement of materials and boundaries could carve the mind and evoke a particular spirit. To look at the Discovering Elegance kitchen was not like looking at the kitchen at the Home Show. You were not meant to drool over the goodies there, but to celebrate what goes on in the kitchen, to understand it as a sacred, even a spiritual, room. It was not intended practically, as a design to copy, but as an expression of what Trungpa Rinpoche would have called “kitchenness.” Contemplating these rooms made you appreciate room altogether.
In the headlong march of globalization, we are rapidly gobbling up and despoiling the open spaces and cramming the enclaves with stuff and things. What’s the rush? Where are we going? All of space is right before us-in our kitchens, in the park down the street, in the night sky.