Camp, Cabin, Cottage or Lakehouse?

I’ve been tossing the words cottage and cabin around interchangeably since buying the property in December, never really sure which one applies best.  I actually looked up online specific definitions for these words, curious as to which would apply to our tiny paradise best.  

As it turns out, there aren’t any hard and fast rules.  In fact, in the States, a lot depends on your geographic location.  Something that might be called a “camp” in the east might be called a “cabin” in the mid-west.  In Canada, it seems, we are just as divided. 

In Eastern Canada, the word cabin is greatly preferred to describe “a small house in the courntryside, often by a lake, where people go on summer weekends”, according to a study for the North American Regional Vocabulary Survey done by Charles Boberg, a professor of linguistics at McGill University.  While in Toronto, the word cabin is never used.  Southern Ontarians seem to prefer to call their summer getaway a cottage.  The word camp is widely used in Northern Ontario for a rustic shelter but, with the slight exception of New Brunswick, is hardly ever used anywhere else. 

I’ve also found some other definitions.  It seems, that to some, a cottage is a secondary home, one that is outfitted with the comfort of home (running water, electricity, etc.) but that is not lived in year-round.  A cabin something that is rustic, off-grid and only three-season.  Some opinions are that the shelter that has no plumbing and no electricity would be considered a camp, that a cabin is something that has some amenities but is not 4-season.  A cottage, by extension, would then be something that could be lived in all year but isn’t.  Finally, the lake house is exactly that – a house whose grounds border a lake.

But here’s the thing.  Those definitions don’t really fit with my experience. I have only ever heard the word camp refer to a hunt camp, a rustic shelter used only during hunting season.  Therefore, our building is not a camp to me, though others, because of its lack of utilities, might consider it a camp.  A lake house is a term I, personally, would use for any property that is on water that could be lived in all year long, whether it is or not.  A great many people I know have “cottages” that I would consider “lake houses”.  As far as I’m concerned, if you have everything you could need at the cottage, including space, then it is not a cottage.  It is a lake house.  Therefore, our tiny living space is not anywhere near the definition of a lake house.  In my opinion, a cottage is near water and a cabin is more remote and in the woods.  While our property is not waterfront but has easy access to the lake, I think of it as a cottage.  However in winter, when living in just one room with the wood-burning cook stove, I really felt like it was a cabin because the conditions were somewhat primitive and the lake was frozen and therefore we were “in the woods” and not “at the lake”.  Sometimes, because of its rustic qualities (no running water, no electricity and its thin insulation) I feel that it fits the cabin definition better.  But when we have all the lights on from solar power, an indoor compost toilet and a lovely heat from the stove, it doesn’t feel as rustic as I feel a cabin should be, by definition.

But cottages and cabins have some things in common.  For example, both cabins and cottages have smaller spaces and their charm is built on the social experience of being there.  Cabins and cottages expect more work from you.  But it’s an honest work that creates something purposeful at the end of it, be it food or heat or clean dishes.  A cabin and a cottage both require us to get away from it all, to take leave of Facebook and Twitter, to do without the phone, to leave emails for another day.  Cabins and cottages invite reading and napping and campfires and card games.  They subtly encourage you to start up conversations with the neighbours, offer drinks to those who wander by, to get muddy and playful, to look at the stack of dishes by the sink and say, “Later.”

I am yet undecided on exactly which our little paradise is – a cabin or a cottage. But I do know that whatever it is, it is perfect.

What do you visualize when you hear the words camp, cabin, cottage and lake house?


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