A word from your captain—air travel words

I love the terminology we use when we travel by aeroplane. Even though it is the most modern form of transport, air travel words are the most retro, having been borrowed from the age of sailing ships. Air and sea travel’s shared vocabulary evokes a sense of elegant adventure while the vocabulary of domestic travel remains practical and prosaic.

The sea travel source of air travel words

Air travel words like “captain”, “first officer”, “pilot”, “cabin”, “galley”, “deck”, “port” and “starboard” are all are commonly used words that have their origins in maritime vocabulary. It is even an air “port” to depict the entry and exit points into a country rather than an “aerodrome” (originally the word for airship hangers).

Although we think that a “pilot” is a very new concept, it is also a maritime borrowing that probably goes back to Ancient Greek.  Pilot entered English in the early 1510s meaning someone one who steers a ship especially when the ship is passing in or out of harbour. It came from French pillote, from Italian piloto. It may have originated from Old Italian pedoto, from Medieval Greek pedotes for rudder, helmsman, from Greek pedon for a steering oar (which is related to pod for foot).  Pilot then also became used more figuratively in the sense of a guide to help someone through difficulties. Pilot was adopted in the 1840s to one who controls a balloon and by 1907 to one who flies an aeroplane.

The “flight deck” reminds us of the “deck” of a ship and “cabin” its rooms. “Cockpit” was the midshipmen’s compartment below decks (amusingly based on the pit where roosters were made to fight). Craft originally meant power and then was used to mean a skill, art or science.  The meaning small boat (from the 1670s) may come from the phrase vessel of small craft referring either to the trade they did (in crafts) or the lower skill in seamanship they required. Aircraft dates from the 1850 also in reference to balloons.

When we do get to the aircraft, we “board” it to “embark” on our flight. When we get to our destination, we “disembark”. We have our “luggage” (what we lug around) stored in the “hold”.

What about buses and trains?

Those that work on buses and trains don’t get to use the same magical air travel words to describe their work environment or tasks. Their terminology is decidedly more grounded and utilitarian. As you are moving in a bus or train you move to the front or back, but in an aircraft, it may still be “forward” and “aft”.

The person who steers a plane along its course to its faraway destination is the “captain” the person who steers a bus or train to its destination is a “driver”.

The second in charge on an aircraft is the “first officer” whereas on a bus it is a “conductor” or on a train the “chief conductor”.  The people who serve food on an aircraft are “stewards” and prepare the food in a “galley”, the people who serve food on a train are caterers who serve food from a “buffet” or if up-market, the “restaurant carriage”.

Not just a ticket

When you are ready to travel by air you go to an airport and get a “boarding pass” but on a bus or train you just get on and off at “stops” or “stations” making do with just a “ticket”.

Collective nouns for groups of vehicles

The commercial airliners have a “fleet” of aircraft just as navies have fleets of ships (“fleet” is a very old word from “fleoton” to float or swim). Fleet is also used for the set of buses or cars owned by an organisation.

Where we stow our vehicles

Buses and trains are parked in “depots” or “sidings” where aircraft are in “hangers”. Train and bus language is never about “port” or “starboard” but just the humble “left” and “right”.

Being contrary with air travel words

I sometimes feel I want to disrupt the maritime pretentiousness of air travel words by calling aircraft captains “plane drivers” and the stewards, “waiters”.  I also feel we should give more respect to our public transport workers. So next time I board the 492 bus to Campsie, I will shake hands with the bus captain as I board the roadcraft, and wish him a safe voyage.