Word Matters Podcast

Traveling Words: Luggage, Baggage, and the Recombobulation Station

Word Matters, episode 95

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Hosted by Emily Brewster, Ammon Shea, and Peter Sokolowski.

Produced in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Download the episode here.


Emily Brewster: Coming up on Word Matters, we revisit combobulation with our luggage and baggage in hand.

I'm Emily Brewster and Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media. On each episode, Merriam-Webster editors Ammon Shea, Peter Sokolowski and I explore some aspect of the English language from the dictionary's vantage point.

Listener feedback sends us back to the recombobulation station we first discussed in episode 86. I'll lead the way.

Emily Brewster: Way back in episode 86, we discussed uncommon opposites, like the underused gruntled and kempt. And I bemoaned at one point a lack of the word combobulation to contrast with discombobulation, and Peter, you brought up the recombobulation station that you have seen in airports. A number of people wrote to us about recombobulation, and listeners Kelly and Nick pointed us to Milwaukee's General Mitchell International Airport as the location of the recombobulation station. Peter, you are confident you've seen it in other places too.

Peter Sokolowski: I'm pretty sure I have, but I've certainly gone through there, but I can't remember which of the airports I've seen it in. You're usually rushing to put your shoes back on or something.

Emily Brewster: Right. As of January 2021, the General Mitchell International Airport did claim to be the only airport with such an area designated as such, but it is very possible that it will and has spread because it makes so much sense. What do you do in a recombobulation area? You recombobulate yourself and it's instantly clear you have been discombobulated by having to remove your belt and your shoes and your jewelry, and taking your computer out of your bag and you—

Peter Sokolowski: Your phone.

Emily Brewster: And then you have to put everything back in. You have to recombobulate yourself. The name was apparently the brainchild of former Airport Director Barry Bateman and it was a joking term that he applied to this area as a way to play with the language and insert some levity into what is never a fun situation.

Peter Sokolowski: It's a hugely successful coinage to my mind, because first of all, it's fun to say, and discombobulate is a fun word. And second of all, it’s so transparent. When I encountered it, it didn't actually register it as jocular because again, in that moment, you're a little bit harried. You're a little bit rushed maybe, and you certainly want to get out of someone else's way. You just want to get through that quickly. I saw and I realized immediately, okay, this is where I do this thing. I'm going to move on and go to Jamba Juice or whatever you do. People coin words with hopes of success quite frequently. This is a word that has a really good chance, it seems to me.

Emily Brewster: It seems perfect that it was not remarkable to you as a coinage because in your professional life, you are a lexicographer, so you see an unusual word and you're like, "Oh, okay. That's an interesting one," and didn't even really stop to think that it might be basically a joke, right?

Peter Sokolowski: No, I didn't.

Emily Brewster: You saw this word functioning out in the world, doing its job, clearly communicating something to you and took it in and assimilated it.

Peter Sokolowski: Exactly.

Ammon Shea: I think that it's very difficult obviously, to coin a word and get it to have any success. The chances of this happening with any given coinage are very, very slim. But this one does seem to have a much higher chance of success because as you pointed out, Peter, it's fun to say, it's useful, it's well formed. Also, perhaps most importantly, it has a natural, very large audience.

Peter Sokolowski: That's right.

Ammon Shea: A lot of people are seeing it right away.

Peter Sokolowski: And they have to, there's no choice.

Ammon Shea: Right.

Emily Brewster: The word was apparently part of the American Dialect Society's listing of words for, I think it was 2008; it won in the Most Creative category at the American Dialect Society's annual vote for words of the year.

Peter Sokolowski: Of course this entire ritual of airport security is really 20 years old, so it's still linguistically speaking, a new phenomenon. Makes perfect sense that it would generate language.

Emily Brewster: Time was we all just remained combobulated our entire travel experience. We were wholly combobulated the entire time. Listener Kelly also wrote with this speculation. She wonders if there could be any connection between the coinage of recombobulate, recombobulation and rebobinar, the Spanish verb for rewind, as in the rewinding of video cassette. Kelly writes, "They share phonetic similarities and a similar sense of setting things back in order, setting them back to rights after an unwinding of sorts. Rebobinar also connects to the English word bobbin, the small spools that need to be wound with thread in order for a sewing machine to function." This is all very fascinating to me, and I don't know the source of rebobinar, but it's more likely that the bob in discombobulate is the same bob that's in thingamabob and in other really playful uses of the word bob to mean “a trick,” to mean “a blow with the fist,” and also “a sharp rebuke.” Those are all ways that the Oxford English dictionary defines bob.

Ammon Shea: I think also that our etymologists have surmised that discombobulate was probably an alteration of discompose, which means that the rebobinar connection would be perhaps unlikely.

Emily Brewster: Just a circumstantial fact about the structure of the words. Jonathan Green lists a number of variants for discombobulate. These are historical variations on the word. Among them: discombobligate, discombobalate, discomfusel, discomboblificate, and discomfuddle.

Peter Sokolowski: And that's from Green's Dictionary of Slang.

Emily Brewster: Dictionary of Slang, that's right. Green's Dictionary of Slang, a phenomenal online slang dictionary.

Ammon Shea: I know that comfuzzle and bumfuzzle, I think there are a lot of similar forms of these words, and fuddle and befuddle, so adding the discom- to a number of those makes sense.

Emily Brewster: Yeah, it does. They are all words that are evidence of the playful inclinations of English speakers. None of these are words were coined to be taken very seriously.

Peter Sokolowski: But a lot of such words were deliberately Latinate. We have the dis- at the beginning of this and com- and the ending A-T-E, which is all clearly Latin. A lot of the playful language creation was based on the idea that those Latin words were the hard words, were the long words. I believe the word conundrum is widely assumed to have been made up to sound like a Latin word by undergraduates in Britain. Now we take it as an unremarkable and probably very serious, usually assumed to be Latin word. This is interesting, but the bob, that thing at the middle, at the center, that's a truly native English sound and English morphology and the rest of it is this deliberate, overkill Latin. I just think that's partly the fun of this too, is that you take those serious elements and you throw in a jocular element.

Emily Brewster: They're serious, but they're also really familiar and really easy to parse. And so the word is also easy to read, easy to pronounce and because of our understanding of the parts of the word and our understanding of discombobulation, it's also easy to instantly recognize what it means and put your shoes back on.

You're listening to Word Matters, I'm Emily Brewster. Up next, distinguishing luggage from baggage. Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Peter Sokolowski: Word Matters listeners get 25% off all dictionaries and books at shop.merriam-webster.com by using the promo code matters at checkout. That's matters, M-A-T-T-E-R-S at shop.merriam-webster.com.

Ammon Shea: I'm Ammon Shea, do you have a question about the origin, history, or meaning of a word? Email us at wordmatters@m-w.com.

Peter Sokolowski: I'm Peter Sokolowski, join me every day for the Word of the Day, a brief look at the history and definition of one word, available at merriam-webster.com or wherever you get your podcasts. And for more podcasts from New England Public Media, visit the NEPM podcast hub nepm.org.

Emily Brewster: In the disconcerting event that your travels by air deliver you to your destination, but not what you've packed, you may find yourself filing a lost luggage claim or a lost baggage claim. It could be either. Instead of ruminating over the awful circumstances, we turn our attention to the words themselves, with Peter guiding us.

Peter Sokolowski: English is so incredibly rich with synonyms, but anyone who's ever used a thesaurus knows that there are very few exact synonyms. In fact, I think it's an old saw among linguists that the only true synonyms in English are the words furze and gorse. It's something I used to hear someone say and it was his way of saying there are no true synonyms. Furze and gorse, of course, are two different usually British names for a kind of bush, like a juniper, an evergreen bush.

Emily Brewster: Thank you for clarifying because no, of course I did not know that. How do you spell the first one?

Peter Sokolowski: Furze is F-U-R-Z-E.

Emily Brewster: Ah.

Peter Sokolowski: Furze and gorse and if you look up furze in the Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary, it says, "called also gorse," and if you look up gorse, it has a synonymous cross reference back to furze. So there is an analytical definition of the plant at furze and basically it's a shrub, like a Juniper. It makes you think about the way we think about language. There's so many of these synonyms that we recognize either consciously or unconsciously. Typically, however, my bigger point is they usually land in different places. We don't use the words kingly and royal interchangeably, even though they kind of mean the same thing. There's a lot of examples of this, of course and a lot of them are as a consequence of the twin rich histories of Old English Germanic vocabulary and the Norman-inflected French Latin vocabulary of English, which has clearly become my life's work analyzing, because I always seem to notice these things. But we have words like fatherhood and paternity.

Ammon Shea: Some of these are based on the etymology of the words, but some of them I think are just idiomatic, like you pointed out, kingly and royal. You wouldn't say you're a kingly pain in the ass, but you would say you're a royal pain in the ass and I don't think that has to do with etymology. I think it's just the way that we've put these words together and it's become a fixed phrase, more or less.

Peter Sokolowski: Absolutely.

Ammon Shea: As anyone who has a child of a certain age knows.

Peter Sokolowski: Absolutely and that's the strange thing about English, is that we have these choices. And with an idiom, of course, you end up choosing one over the other. Don't we often say “the icing on the cake” and not “the frosting on the cake,” for example? It's like when you say “a piece of cake,” that's an idiom that means it's very easy, but “a slice of cake” is dessert and it would never be construed in the other way. Even though, of course, literally they are identical in meaning, they convey the same meaning. I just find that fascinating that English has this unbelievable flexibility, but also richness of vocabulary.

Ammon Shea: I say “tranche of cake” myself, but I'm not going to speak for you two.

Peter Sokolowski: It's a tranche of cake.

Ammon Shea: Uneducated bores that you are.

Peter Sokolowski: There we go, I love it. Even basic words like the word same, but the Latin version would be the word equal and we don't use those interchangeably. The word hurt is the Old English word and the word injure is the Latin word. There, you start to see pairing of a Latin word that's more medical or technical and the Old English word that's the household word; hurt and injure. Even words like before and prior, we have these pairings and we tend to use them in different ways, but those different connotations used in different contexts, different registers sometimes, that's the way the language works. Words land in different places. But there are sometimes synonyms that are hard to distinguish, like furze and gorse, and I'm thinking of baggage and luggage. Do you make a distinction between baggage and luggage?

Ammon Shea: Yes.

Emily Brewster: What's your distinction, Ammon?

Ammon Shea: One of them is impedimenta and the other is not. Impedimenta, things which slow you down, and I put the former in that category. I think of baggage as impedimenta and luggage as not.

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah, that's interesting.

Emily Brewster: Your luggage is just your light carry-on bag?

Ammon Shea: I think I'm just conflating the baggage with its metaphorical use as well because we speak often of having “emotional baggage” or things like that. “That's an interesting idea, but it comes with all this baggage,” meaning attendant issues. And you wouldn't say, "Oh, that's an interesting idea, but it comes with all this luggage," so I think of luggage as the light thing.

Emily Brewster: What about if you are actually in the market for a new satchel, a new suitcase, a new ruck sack.

Ammon Shea: I usually travel with what I can fit in my pockets. I try to not take either luggage or baggage with me, so these are purely theoretical applications.

Emily Brewster: Ammon, you have to take one. Which one are you going to take on the plane?

Ammon Shea: I take a backpack sometimes. I think of it as neither baggage nor luggage. I realize this is not a reasonable approach to language, but it is my own idiosyncratic and highly theoretical approach to language.

Emily Brewster: And coming from you, to be expected, I suppose.

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah.

Emily Brewster: Peter, what about you? Do you pack luggage or baggage?

Peter Sokolowski: I think I usually say luggage myself. It's interesting, because Ammon is in this case with his idiosyncrasies, he's also going against etymology because the lug of luggage is the lug that we use as a verb, meaning “to carry laboriously,” the very difficult thing to lug around, as we would say. And so that would seem to be more impedimenta, more of a burden than baggage, which just comes from bag essentially.

Emily Brewster: I actually find it very unsatisfying that baggage is the one of this pair that gets the emotional weight attached to it, and the historical weight. You get “that's all your baggage,” but yes, “lugging around.” I mean a bag, “oh, I'm just going to throw this in my bag and go.” It seems like the baggage should be quick and easy, nice and breezy, and instead that's where we have all the weight, all the impedimenta.

Peter Sokolowski: Lug is a great verb, it really does mean I don't find this pleasant. This is difficult and something I really can't endure for long, for example.

Emily Brewster: Right, you're not lugging it around for fun.

Ammon Shea: Emily, when you go on a trip, you refer to your baggage rather than your luggage, is that what happens?

Emily Brewster: I'm sure I use both because there is none that sticks out clearly to me. I've got a suitcase and I've got a carry-on bag and I've got a stroller and I've got a who knows what. I think it's interesting that at the actual airport you are as likely to see a baggage claim as you are a luggage claim, I think. I have not done a survey of airports, but I would not be surprised to see either one. I look for the sign and it's going to say either luggage or baggage.

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah. Honestly, there's no clear winner. “Baggage claim,” “luggage claim,” “unclaimed baggage.” You do see these signs and they are useful and important. One thing is interesting about these words is they have that same ending. The A-G-E ending is actually from French and it was attached to bag, which comes from French and lug, the verb lug comes from Old English. So they do have different root words, but they have the same ending. Think of other words. We have carriage, which comes from carry and we have portage also means “to carry something.” And [foreign language 00:15:33], that's the French word for “to carry.” So carriage and portage are actually etymologically twins. They all have that same ending. And it is interesting that baggage and luggage have this crisscrossing history because the original meaning of baggage in French was the equipment of an army, because an army always had wagons and all kinds of supplies and things.

And yet Shakespeare uses luggage in Henry the V and Henry the IV to refer to the military apparatus. Again, these meanings simply crisscross for us today, but they crisscrossed from the beginning. There is something very important here and Ammon brought it up right away, which is the major difference between baggage and luggage is not the concrete meaning or the literal meaning, but it's that figurative meaning. We don't say “emotional luggage,” we say “emotional baggage” or “political baggage” or “personal baggage.” But for whatever reason, luggage has retained its literalness and baggage hasn't and who knows why? But boy, that's a pretty firm rule and if you were teaching English you would teach it that way. That baggage has this very important secondary figurative meaning.

Emily Brewster: I'm going to start saying “emotional luggage.”

Peter Sokolowski: You'd be really hard pressed to draw a line between these two words, except for that very interesting distinction that we've decided to make one poetic.

Emily Brewster: Right, it's very interesting, and the OED traces that use of baggage to the late 19th century, so pretty new. Although baggage does have all these other unflattering, not very nice other meanings. Things that are trashy and garbage-like, rubbish, those things could also historically be referred to as baggage.

Peter Sokolowski: Yes. These are words with long histories. I remember my French teacher in high school used to refer to the [foreign language 00:17:19] and what he meant was the way that you furnish your mind in school, the books that you read, the words that you learn and they are now on your bookshelf in a figurative sense. They're inside your mind, you're carrying intellectual baggage. I always found that to be a pleasant thing to think about these experiences, everything we learn, even if we only retain a part of it, it becomes a part of our way of understanding and seeing the world. Baggage is something that we do carry around, whether it's heavy and literal or light and figurative.

Emily Brewster: Let us know what you think about Word Matters. Review us wherever you get your podcasts or email us at wordmatters@m-w.com. You can also visit us at nepm.org and for the word of the day and all your general dictionary needs, visit merriam-webster.com.

Our theme music is by Tobias Voigt, artwork by Annie Jacobson. Word Matters is produced by John Voci and me. For Ammon Shea and Peter Sokolowski, I'm Emily Brewster. Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster and New England Public Media.

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