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TWTS: Whether it's luggage or baggage, it all gets lugged

Some words mean just what they sound like they mean. This week, we’ve found that useful characteristic “luggage.” Historically, it means “what has to be lugged about,” just like we’d expect it to mean.

Should we be more specific about what’s getting lugged about though?

Our listener Cole France has noticed that his wife specifies “travel luggage” when discussing things like suitcases. Cole wanted to know whether “non-travel luggage” is a thing.

“In theory, there is luggage that is not ‘travel luggage.’ But, in fact, for most speakers, ‘luggage’ means the bags that we take when we travel,” says Professor Anne Curzan.

That doesn’t mean “travel luggage” isn’t out there.

By the early 20th century, “luggage” specifically refers to suitcases, or bags that have a traveler’s belongings in them. Around this time, however, you will start to see the use of “travel luggage.”

“You could imagine that if ‘luggage’ is specific to this particular use of travel, that ‘travel luggage’ usefully specifies that I’m talking about travel,” says Professor Anne Curzan.

Google Books shows an uptick in “travel luggage” in the second half of the 20th century. It’s still relatively rare, but it does pop up from time to time, such as this headline from Outside Magazine: “The best travel luggage of 2023.”

One interesting fact about “luggage” is that it has what Merriam Webster calls a “near perfect synonym.”

Think about this, when you need to pick up your luggage at the airport, do you go to “luggage claim”? No, you go to baggage claim, because “baggage” and “luggage” are the same thing. In a physical sense, that is.

It’s hard to find words that have absolutely no differences, and this pair is no exception. “Baggage” has the metaphorical meaning of “emotional baggage,” while “luggage” does not.

We've got to say though, we kind of wish "emotional luggage" was a thing.

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Rebecca Kruth is the host of All Things Considered at Michigan Radio. She also co-hosts Michigan Radio’s weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
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