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The language of the law. Part Latin, part Anglo-Saxon, all confusing.

The Legal Genealogist really doesn’t care if Zsa Zsa Gabor ever really said it, or if it’s just something that sounds so much like something Zsa Zsa Gabor would say that it’s just attributed to her.

keephouseBut it’s a great quote, and it goes something like this:

“I am a marvelous housekeeper,” Zsa Zsa is supposed to have said. “Every time I leave a man I keep his house.”1

See what I mean?

It really doesn’t matter if the words are hers or not.

What does matter is how we’d interpret the words if we ran across them in a very different context.

Say, for example, in a description of an English or colonial American businessman.

In which case “keeping house” doesn’t mean anything even remotely like what we might think of when we think of the words.

Keeping house is a concept from English bankruptcy law, and it became part of English law in 1571.2 Under a law enacted in that 13th year of the reign of Elizabeth I, a merchant or trader who was a debtor couldn’t try to hide away from his creditors — “beginning to keep house, so that he cannot be seen or spoken to by his creditors, is an act of bankruptcy.”3

So, a merchant would be considered bankrupt if — to avoid being hounded by bill collectors — he hid himself away in his house.

As Black’s Law Dictionary explains:

“The English bankrupt laws use the phrase ‘keeping house’ to denote an act of bankruptcy. It is committed when a trader absents himself from his place of business and retires to his private residence to evade the importunity of creditors.”

“The usual evidence of ‘keeping house’ is refusal to see a creditor who has called on the debtor at his house for money.”4

Find somebody in your family tree keeping house in colonial America or in English court records?

He needed to pay up.


  1. See Wikipedia (, “Zsa Zsa Gabor,” rev. 8 Jan 2015.
  2. Bankruptcy Act, 13 Eliz. I c. 7.
  3. See Isaac ‘Espinasse, A Digest of the Law of Actions and Trials at Nisi Prius (Dublin : p.p., 1794), 552; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 14 Jan 2015).
  4. Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 677, “keeping house.”
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