The language of tourism

by Pippa Wordie

Tourism terminology is a veritable jumbo-jet of jargon! “Technological inventions have always arisen from necessity…[and gives rise to the] Fallacy: the idea that technology changes society. It is exactly the reverse. Society develops technology to address the changes that are taking place within it. Society changes, and that change creates new needs.” (Kurlansky, 2017, pp. xiii-xiv). Although tourism may not be regarded as a ‘technology’, the rapid growth of the industry since the late 1800’s has necessitated the invention of a ‘new’ vocabulary. This is being constantly updated and requires that both “tourism practitioners and tourists [have] to endlessly learn it.” (Chiwanga, 2014). How do they do this?

Fortunately, tourism has created its own solution, travel literature. Bradt, Eyewitness, Frommer, Lonely Planet, Marco Polo and the Rough Guides are the industry’s leading names, wedged onto shelves among a growing plethora of travel guidebooks. Their purpose: to inform the first time visitor or seasoned explorer, both tourists – you and me – on everything of primary importance and more about the chosen destination. They may equally convince you a specific tour has to be experienced and, added value is gained if you hire the services of a local ‘Tourist Guide’; perhaps a tour of travel alliteration would be more apt!

Practical as these guides are, the solution has also created a divergence of communication between provider and user. It is here we return to the ‘jumbo-jet jargon’ and what I reveal next may explain why the air ticket you bought recently was not what you anticipated. But, it was what you asked for! In airline speak no matter where you fly to, you have two alternatives: either a ‘direct’ flight or a ‘non-stop’ flight. The tourism professional will explain a ‘direct’ flight will stop at least once in the journey, other than the main destination. Conversely, the ‘non-stop’ flight is ‘direct’ and goes straight from A to B, with no stops. Simple to comprehend how the confusion has crept in; most of the English-speaking world understand ‘direct’ to mean as defined by the Oxford English dictionary: “extending or moving in a straight line or by the shortest route; not crooked or circuitous.” It is apparent that ‘direct’ is not direct and has another meaning within the tourism industry.

Why would an entire industry change the meaning of just one word and for what purpose? As stated previously, the industry has evolved at a dramatic rate and part of this has been the development of commercial air travel. Larger aircraft have enabled the airlines to cover greater distances offering their customers the opportunity of going further in one go. However, the subsequent fuel cost can only be offset when a high percentage of seats onboard are sold. Not an easy task for any airline but more achievable if the journey is broken to allow a fresh market of consumer to refill the airplane for the onward leg. The air ticket can then be split into two separate portions or bought as one trip, both offering a cheaper alternative because of the stopover. Adapting the use of ‘direct’ was a conscious decision and enabled airline sales departments to make a clear distinction when selling the same long haul destination for varying prices (and experiences).

We have seen how the travel industry has changed the meaning of one word. The consumer may not agree with it and the tourism industry could have better communicated its nuance but “The fact is that none of us can unilaterally decide what a word means. Meanings of words are shared between people – they are a kind of social contract we all agree to – otherwise communication would not be possible.” (Trudgill,1998, p.19). And I hope that in partnership with modern technology, social media, this article can spread the flying word!


Bauer, L. and Trudgill, P. (1998) Language Myths [Online]. London: Penguin. [Accessed 18 November 2017]

Chiwanga, F.E. (2014) Understanding The Language of Tourism: Tanzanian Perspective. International Journal of Applied Linguistics [online]. Volume (24/2). [Accessed 25 November 2017].

Kurlansky, M. (2017) Paper, Paging Through History. New York: W.W.Norton & Company Inc

Fowler, F.G and H.W. (1924) The Pocket Oxford Dictionary. Reprint. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992


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