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Dear Word Detective: What is the derivation of the word “realtor”? When was it first used? — Bill Rozich.

Those are good questions, Bill, but before we begin, I’ve just been handed a bulletin from our resident lawyer, Boots the Cat. Bill, you’re in a heap o’ trouble. You spelled that word correctly (many folks seem to think it’s “real-a-tor”), but you didn’t capitalize it, which is a major legal no-no. According to the National Association of Realtors, “The term ‘REALTOR’ is a registered collective membership mark that identifies a real estate professional who is a member of the ‘NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS’.” Whoa. Those folks sure love those capital letters; literally every time the word “Realtor” appears on their website it’s in ALL CAPS. Anyway, only those who pony up dues to the NAR can call themselves “Realtors,” a term the NAR trademarked in 1949. I guess the rest of those house-floggers in dorky blazers are just “real estate agents.”

The roots of “realtor” (which I’m now going to stop capitalizing in hopes of annoying the NAR) are fairly straightforward, but the invention of the word itself spawned an interesting tussle. Let’s talk about the tussle first. Keep in mind that this was all way before the advent of television, back when people had the time (and brain cells) to ponder such things.

It all began back in 1916, when C.N. Chadbourn, Chairman of the National Association of Real Estate Boards (precursor of the NAR), declared, “I propose that the National Association adopt a professional title to be conferred upon its members which they shall use to distinguish them from outsiders… the title of ‘realtor’ (accented on the first syllable).” Since distinguishing oneself from “outsiders” is just about the world’s oldest hobby, “realtor” was born.

Today we’re used to companies and groups copyrighting or trademarking invented words. But back then this “realtor” business apparently rubbed quite a few folks the wrong way. Sinclair Lewis, in his classic novel “Babbitt” (1922), took a dig at the appeal of “realtor,” having Babbitt himself declare, “We ought to insist that folks call us ‘realtors’ and not ‘real-estate men.’ Sounds more like a reg’lar profession.”

That same year of 1922, the provenance of “realtor” became an issue on the floor of the US House of Representatives. Rep. Raker, a Democrat of California, was speaking about possible rent increases in the District of Columbia when he was interrupted by Rep. Curry (R-Ca.), who asked if he knew the roots of “realtor.” Curry went on to explain that the word “comes from the Spanish words ‘real’ meaning ‘royal’ and ‘tor’ meaning ‘bull’.” According to the New York Times of May 18, 1922, Mr. Raker, shouting to be heard above the uproar on the House floor, responded, “And that’s just what these realtors have been giving us in saying there’d be no rent increases.”

This “royal bull” etymology of “realtor” caught the attention of the journalist and lexicographer H.L. Mencken, who dismissed it in his magisterial The American Language (1923). Mencken characterized “realtor” as a classically American euphemism for the lowly “real estate agent,” and noted that the suffix “or” was undoubtedly carefully chosen, since “or” has always carried more dignity and prestige than the equivalent “er,” citing “author” as weightier than “writer” and “advisor” socially outgunning “adviser.” He also noted that the approved pronunciation of “realtor” is “reel-tor,” rather than “ree-al-tor.”

Oh, right, the actual origins of “realtor”? It’s simply the fragment “realt” from “realty” with that dignified agent suffix “or” tacked on. “Realty,” which originally meant simply the quality of being “real,” took on the meaning of “real, immovable property” (such as land, houses, etc.) in the 17th century, and by the 19th century was being used to mean simply “real estate” as we use that term now.

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