Q&A: “Luggage” vs “baggage”

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we have bags of fun…

Q: Hey AWC, I’m heading home for the holidays and I have a lot of baggage.

A: Yeah, visiting family will often dredge up emotional issues.

Q: No, I actually have waaay too many bags. 

A: Has this column become travel tips now? Um, try rolling your underwear?

Q: Haha, thanks, but no – I do have a word-related question. What’s the difference between “baggage” and “luggage”?

A: Well, has anyone ever had luggage left over from a previous relationship?

Q: Haha, okay so that IS one difference – you only use baggage for the figurative emotional stuff?

A: That’s right. What Macquarie Dictionary defines as “emotions, beliefs, etc., retained from previous experience, especially as influencing one's behaviour”.  Merriam Webster opts forintangible things (such as feelings, circumstances, or beliefs) that get in the way”.

Q: Yeah that’s it. Like how I can’t look at toasters now without thinking about my ex.

A: Ummm, okay. So “baggage” is the older term. It came into English in the mid-1400s from the French “bague” for sack or bundle.

Q: Oh, so is “baguette” related?

A: Nope, that’s a much later addition – also from French, meaning “rod-like shape”. It has been used to describe long narrow gemstones since the 1920s, but the bread is quite recent – from 1958.

Q: Okay, but “bague” at least gave us the modern day “bag”, right?

A: Actually, the word “bag” likely came from the Old Norse “baggi” – but “bague” probably helped out along the way. The 13th century was a messy time, etymologically speaking.

Q: I imagine it was messy in a lot of ways. 

A: True. So anyway, “baggage” was originally just for the military – something to move their portable equipment around in. It was typically used to carry weapons rather than shirts and socks. In fact, it wasn’t until the 1500s that it began applying to the travelling containers of a civilian. 

Q: You mean a suitcase, yeah?

A: Well the term “suitcase” wasn’t really a thing until tourism properly came along in the latter part of the 1800s. That word only made its debut in 1898. 

Q: So what was “baggage” before then?

A: Trunks made from wood and leather, usually with an iron base. 

Q: Sounds heavy!

A: Exactly. Certainly not the “carry on” wheeled fancy things you see gliding through terminals today. Typically the only people with baggage in the 16th century were wealthy – with a servant to lug it around for them.

Q: Wait… lug. Luggage!

A: Haha, exactly. This word was coined in 1596 to literally describe “what has to be lugged about”. The idea was probably to have a word that separated it from the military connotations of “baggage”.

Q: So “luggage” was named to essentially deal with its past baggage?

A: Clever. Of course, over the centuries “baggage” began to be used less in military contexts – resulting in a 20th century showdown at the check-in counter.

Q: Ooooh, exciting!

A: Yeah, so as we said, tourist travel really hit its straps/buckles in the late 19th and early 20th century. And by then, you suddenly had two words essentially meaning the same thing. 

Q: Bag fight!

A: Indeed – and in this fight, neither term wanted to pack its bags, so to speak. The British decided that “luggage” would be their preferred word for “baggage belonging to passengers”, while the Americans initially preferred to use “luggage” to describe just the bags themselves (when empty), and “baggage” when they were filled with stuff.

Q: But wait, what? Luggage should be the heavier stuff – you lug it around. Yet the Americans wanted to use it for the empty bags? 

A: Oh, if you thought the 13th century was messy, this bag situation was even more confusing than the baggage carousel at a Samsonite convention.

Q: Huh?

A: Because they’ve all got the same— never mind. Anyway, yes, it got a bit messy. The British spent most of the 20th century seeing the world with luggage, while Americans took baggage on vacation. Neither would be the other’s punching bag.

Q: Nice.

A: Thank you.

Q: At this point, you’d think it would be a “this town ain’t big enough for the both of us” situation. But I feel like today, it kind of IS big enough for both, right?

A: Exactly. The thing about travellers is that they TRAVEL. And so eventually you had all these British and American tourists arriving at airports and train stations with their baggage and luggage. Over time, many terms simply decided to pick a lane.

Q: Such as?

A: Such as the term “baggage claim/reclaim” being preferred universally – regardless of location. The same goes for “baggage handlers” – yet you’re more likely to seek out “lost luggage”. 

Q: Huh, yeah. My uncle once lost the trunk he was travelling with. They managed to locate the rest of the elephant though.

A: Ummm, okay. Of course, you also have terms that are seemingly interchangeable. Even on the Sydney Airport’s official website, you’ll find BOTH the terms “checked baggage” and “checked luggage”. You’ll also find services in LAX for storing “luggage” and in London’s Heathrow for storing “baggage”. 

Q: What a mess.

A: This article probably illustrates it well – the headline and intro is all about “luggage” yet it’s happening in the “baggage” area. And the words flip flop throughout the article.

Q: It certainly is a mixed bag…

A: The point is that while historically, the British may have preferred “luggage” and Americans “baggage”, TODAY if you check most dictionaries, in the travel sense they’re almost perfect synonyms. 

Q: I guess that biggest difference is that “luggage” will always relate to travel while “baggage” sometimes likes to get all figurative and emotional.

A: Precisely. That “emotional baggage” meaning is quite new, by the way – first coined in the 1950s.

Q: Wow. So what did everyone carry their emotions around in before that?

A: They didn’t. They just kept calm and carried on.

Q: Nice. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some underwear to roll…


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