Walking around in a hipsterish area of Brooklyn over the weekend, I came upon this sign:
What caught my eye was the word “ensuite.” I had come across it — usually as two words, “en suite” — in Britain and Australia, meaning, I believe, that a bathroom is included in a hotel room or some other accommodation.
Research pretty much confirmed my impression. The OED shows a not-surprising progression of the meaning put to the phrase, starting with what I take to be a pretty literal translation from the French: “So as to form (part of) a set, group, or suite.” (“Match-box, stamp-box, and paper-knife, all en suite,” 1862.) In the late eighteenth century, it started to be used to refer to a set of connected rooms; then, crucially (as in the Brooklyn sign), to a bathroom connected to another room. The first such citation is from Canadian Railway and Marine World, in 1925: “Abaft the en suite rooms there is a state room with a single bed, armchair and wardrobe, and an en suite bath room and w.c.” (“Abaft” is a nautical term meaning “behind.”)
The final stage (so far) is “en suite” as a noun referring to the bathroom in question. That shows up in 1968, in an ad in the Canberra (Australia) Times: “Home suitable for a large family, 4 large bedrooms, en-suite off master, panelled study, large kitchen and dining room.”
All of the bathroom-related citations in the OED are from British, Irish, Australian, or Canadian sources. Google Ngram Viewer suggests “en suite” took off in Britain in the 1980s, presumably as a real-estate buzz phrase, which makes sense, given that bathrooms would be the sweet spot for a Frenchified fancy euphemism:
The Corpus of Global Web-Based English, charting billions of words from the early 2010s, shows Ireland (especially) and Britain as heavy “en suite” users, with Canada and Australia lagging behind with the United States.
But “en suite” has hit the U.S., and not just in Brooklyn. In February 2020 alone, the phrase was used in nine articles in the New York Times Real Estate section, including this referring to a $2 million house for sale in Fairfax, California: “The en suite bathroom has a walk-in shower as well as a separate soaking tub.” Beyond real estate, a February 12 Times review of the movie Swallow notes of a character, “She was a retail worker who bagged a rich man. Bearing his child is just another privilege, like en suite bathrooms or the latest iPhone.”