Oxford Word of the Month: September – cubby house

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nouna part of a family home organised or designed so that adult children can have privacy from their parents.


High rents in urban areas and the housing affordability crisis in Australia have given rise to a now familiar problem for parents: when will the kids leave home? And until they do, how can we all live under one roof? Adult offspring need less parental attention than children, but they are likely to want more privacy—a big ask for many suburban households.

Recently a survey found two-thirds of adult children report that they can’t afford to move out of home, with some expecting to remain at home until the age of 30 or more. The company commissioning the survey used the term cubby house syndrome to describe domestic arrangements for such families:

CoreLogic chief executive Lisa Claes said this could see the rise of ‘cubby house syndrome’, whereby parents attempt to fashion independent living arrangements for their adult children inside the existing property. (News.com.au, 8 May 2017)

The term evokes an aspect of childhood for many Australians: a cubby house is a children’s playhouse, usually solidly constructed. The Australian cubby house (recorded from the 1890s) is a specific use of the British English cubby-house ‘a children’s name for a snug, cosy place’, or ‘a little house built by children in play’.

The cubby house of childhood is typically a permanent feature of the backyard, but the new type of cubby house for the adult child is more likely to be indoors. It is the flip side of the parents’ retreat, an Australianism dating from the 1970s, when parents decided they needed a private wing or room in the house away from their growing children. The new retreat for adult children is likely to be at the other end of the house, and possibly a converted garage, rumpus room, or house extension.

A newspaper headline recently interpreted it this way: ‘Cubby-house kids take over the granny flat.’ (The Australian, 9 May 2017) Granny may still have a say in this, but the prospects for under-30s home ownership are unlikely to change soon; she may have to share.

Cubby house and cubby house syndrome are being considered for inclusion in the next edition of the Australian National Dictionary.


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2 thoughts on “Oxford Word of the Month: September – cubby house

  1. Cubby house appears in the Australian Oxford (2004 edition and possibly earlier editions) so surprising it is not in the AND already. Adding syndrome is simply lazy journalese and hardly justifies inclusion, The origin in the AOD is a little different from the explanation you have given. Any relationship to cub?

    • Cubby house in the Australian sense (a usually solidly-constructed children’s playhouse) is already an entry in the Australian National Dictionary (2nd edition, 2016), a historical dictionary of Australian words and meanings. We were interested in the unusual use of the term we report on above, as it is a transferred use of this sense of cubby house. Our job as lexicographers is to monitor and record developments in Australian English such as this. As with any new usage, it is impossible to predict whether it will become established in Australian English. Something we now consider a one-off coinage, or just journalese, may become widely used in time.
      The derivation we give above is the immediate and most pertinent source of the Australian sense of cubby house: the British English meaning of the same term. AOD (Australian Oxford Dictionary) is a general dictionary that includes the term cubby house within the entry for cubby. Dictionary convention is to give an origin for the headword—in this case, cubby. Thus AOD gives the immediate source of cubby as the British dialect word cub, meaning ‘stall’ or ‘pen’. Response from the Australian National Dictionary Centre

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