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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