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The word host has several meanings. Some of these may surprise - or confuse - students who come across them in academic texts. OED distinguishes four nouns, of which one is obsolete, and two verbs, of which one is only likely to be found in medieval history.

  • The most usual meaning of host in everyday English is as the opposite of a guest: a person who entertains others. The more common of the verbs, 'to host' means 'to perform the duties of a host', 'to entertain'.
Etymological note: this meaning of host is derived from the Latin hospes, (accusative) hospitem, which also gives us hospitality, hospital (originally 'a place of lodging', and only later 'a place to care for the sick'), hostel (a place of lodging) and hotel (the same word as hostel, but retaining more of the shape of the French word hôtel, through which the Latin word came into English). Oddly enough, hospes which began as 'host' in our sense, was quickly transferred to mean 'a guest': the English word is cognate with hospes, of which the sense development is 'stranger' > 'enemy' (hostis) > *hosti-pot-, suggests OED without explanation; possibly 'a stranger with whom one drinks [takes potations]'. The modern Italian ospite, has the same ambiguity - it can mean either 'host' or 'guest'. (The obsolete noun 'a host' was used in Middle English to mean 'a guest'.)

This general idea may be:

    • in private life, the giver of a meal, a party etc, or the owner of a house in which a friend is staying, etc.
    • with a financial implication the host of a public house, restaurant or similar establishment is the owner, manager, or similar of a place that takes money from customers for the supply of food, drink or lodging on site, etc. (Habitués of public houses often refer to such jocularly by the archaic phrase mine host). The table d'hôte, or fixed menu in a public eating-place, uses a French form of the same word.
    • in public life, the organiser of entertainment like the above, but often beyond it: a University, for example, may act as host to a meeting of another body, such as the British Academy or British Science Association; a government may host a meeting of Foreign Ministers, or an international body; a city may host a sporting event such as the Olympic games
    • in mass entertainment, the host of a show is the chief presenter, Master of Ceremonies or compère - the 'star' of the show, and a person employed to represent the producers of the show who have actually 'invited' (or hired) the 'guests'
    • and various figurative meanings developed from the basic meaning, for example:
      • in biology, a host species is one that supports various parasites who may be said to 'dine upon it'
      • in medicine, a host is a person who has received a transplant
      • in computer science, a host computer may be one that contains programmes that allow it to be accessed by external agents (when you see a cursor moving across your screen under the control of an engineer working from another machine, your machine is hosting this influence); or, more alarmingly, one that has been infected by malware
  • A common meaning of host in historical contexts is 'army'. This has been expanded to mean 'a large number', 'a crowd' (both literal and figurative), a meaning which may be found throughout academic - and all - writing: one can have a host of inquiries, of problems, or of almost anything. Sometimes, but by no means always, these may be hostile. It is this noun that is linked with the obsolete verb 'to host', which means 'to assemble an army', or 'to come together to form an army'.
Etymological note: this meaning of host is derived from the Latin hostis 'enemy' - from which we also get hostile.
  • In theology and Christian life generally, The Host (not always capitalized) is the name of the consecrated wafer given to believes in the communion service, representing (or transformed into) the body of Christ.
Etymological note: this meaning of host is derived from Latin hostia 'victim', 'sacrifice'. Christian theology holds that Christ is the sacrifice offered by God for the sins of mankind, and that he is the victim, or scapegoat, of the world. The Eucharist, which commemorates or re-enacts the Last Supper, is a descendant of the ancient religious ritual of sacrifice.