Another Ike/Obama Issue: "Tarmac"

In introducing an item about Barack Obama's West Point speech (36 hours after delivery, still not posted at the White House site - but it should eventually be here), I mentioned that I had spent a depressingly long amount of time recently sitting in planes on the tarmac at LaGuardia or O'Hare. An alert reader begs to differ:

As a long time pilot, I cherish any writer who has the knowledge and background to write about flying. Which brings me to my small issue. Like your boiled frogs, as a pilot, I have this odd little issue when people refer to the "tarmac" at an airport.

I don't know any pilots or controllers who refer to the apron or runway or taxiway in this way. Tarmac is a trademarked name for a surface that was indeed widely used during WWII on airports. It is much more akin to asphalt than the concrete used at most airports that have commercial service.

Of course I may have to give up on my mission to get people to stop using the term since there is now a "tarmac" rule for airline passengers. Perhaps it is the simple evolution of the language. After all I'll use a Kleenex to blow my nose and I often have to Xerox my receipts before turning them in. I'm sure that drives somebody crazy some where.

Technically, of course, this is right. "Tarmac" is a trade name derived from tar being placed over "Macadamized" roads, which in turn were named for the Scottish engineer John Loudon McAdam. (Below: McAdam. Below that: what is colloquially but incorrectly called "tarmac.")

John Loudon McAdam.


An airport's "tarmac."

So, yes, the reader is right. And in my life as a small-plane pilot, I would always refer to being on the "apron" or the "taxiway" or the "runway" or the "ramp," rather than on the tarmac. But for general usage, including our lives as commercial airline passengers .... this seems to me to have entered the realm of "using a kleenex" or "having a coke," which in my personal dialect signifies not the respective brand names but the generic products. Usage eventually trumps logic or "rules" or grammar, and despite the reader's logically-sound argument, I think that usage is making "tarmac" generic too.

We'll never bow to incorrect usage on boiled-frogs, though.
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.


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