We’re still sitting on the tarmac…
Given how much I travel, I’ve used that phrase countless times over the last several years but never thought much about the word tarmac. It turns out it’s short for tarmacadam, or tar-penetration macadam.
Macadam is named for John Loudon McAdam who invented an effective and economical road construction method in the early 1800’s based on crushed rock. These roads worked well for horses and carriages but weren’t suitable for higher-speed cars and their rubber tires. The jagged rocks often caused flat tires and, when it rained, roads eroded and became difficult to drive on.
100 years later, Edgar Purnell Hooley improved on the long-standing process by mixing the crushed rock with heated tar and slag. This mixture could form a smooth surface more suitable for cars. Hooley’s patented tarmac quickly became a world-wide standard for roads.
Over time people started to refer to any sort of asphalt or blacktop as tarmac. The term persists, especially for the paved areas at airports, even though the material is rarely used anymore. Ironically, real tarmac isn’t a suitable surface for an airport. Tarmac softens in hot weather which would likely cause a heavy airplane to sink into it.
Having solved the mystery of tarmac, I decided to investigate other unusual words associated with air travel. Here’s what I learned:
APRON: The section of the tarmac that is not a runway or taxiway; this is whether planes park or are serviced.
CONTRAIL: Short for condensation trails, these are the long, thin clouds that form behind aircraft; most often triggered by the water vapor in engine exhaust.
DEADHEADING: A pilot or flight attendant who flies free of charge because they are currently in the wrong city for their next scheduled flight.
IFR: Stands for instrument flight rules, the standard process for flying planes at altitude via electronic instruments when visual clues are not sufficient by themselves.
JUMPSEAT: The fold-up chairs most commonly used by the flight attendants, especially during takeoff and landing. These are officially known as auxiliary crew stations.
Oh, and one more thing. If a mischievous flight attendant offers you a blue juice cocktail, I wouldn’t drink it. Blue juice refers to the lavatory water.
Very interesting, Jonathan. Reminds me of the NY Times column that I used to read “On Language” by William SAPPHIRE (no relation to SAP’s SAPPHIRE NOW customer event:-)
Here are a couple of addition air travel words / acronyms for which people may be familiar:
BOTAR – (aka “Battle Of The Arm Rest”) – (noun) the somewhat gentle, passive aggressive ritual of positioning one’s arm on the arm-rest to prevent the passenger next to you from doing the same.
Deplane (verb) – to exit the plane. (And proof that airlines feel empowered to make up words in an effort to confuse passengers)