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Verbal Energy

Not just what we pack, but what we carry

Luggage and baggage seem to mean the same thing, but it's the latter that's being lugged about on the campaign trail this year.

By Ruth Walker / March 2, 2012

Got baggage? A Transportation Security Administration (TSA) security agent takes a traveler's luggage for a second security check at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York on Wednesday.

Andrew Burton/Reuters

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My last trip out of town prompted thoughts on "unpacking" as a task not only for returning travelers, but for expositors of all sorts: "Let me unpack this idea for you."

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Now, as I'm setting off again, I'm going through a reverse process – packing. I must consider not only what luggage to bring but also how much baggage to carry.

But aren't those the same thing? Yes and no. Luggage and baggage are fraternal twins. Each is formed from a short word – lug, a verb, or bag, a noun – plus "age," which the Online Etymology Dictionary defines as a "suffix forming nouns of act, process, function, condition." Then each has an extra "g," like an extra pair of stout walking shoes tucked in, just in case, to signify a "hard g."

Baggage and luggage are essentially synonymous. But baggage has a whole other life as a metaphor for burdens or unhappy history or unhelpful ideas or emotions.

True, Samuel Johnson, in his famous dictionary of 1755, came up with a definition that reflects keen insight into humanity as well as into trunks and valises: "Luggage," he wrote, is "any thing of more weight than value."

But most of the time baggage is the figurative term. "He carries a lot of baggage" simply doesn't mean the same thing as "He carries a lot of luggage."

When speaking literally, you have some flexibility in use of synonyms. Speaking metaphorically, you have to get the idiom just right – or it's just wrong.

The hotel bellman about to take custody of your suitcases for a few hours might ask either "How many pieces of luggage do you have?" or "How much baggage do you have?"

But you will not hear political analysts this season complaining about a candidate carrying "a lot of luggage," trust me. (Jimmy Carter drew attention during the 1976 presidential campaign for carrying his own garment bag, but that's a different phenomenon.)

To confirm my sense of all this, it crossed my mind – for some reason, I'm not sure just why – to search for the name of another Georgian with presidential aspirations plus "baggage."

Whereupon I had an experience familiar to anyone who has ever Googled: You start entering search terms and before you've completed a thought, lo, the search gnomes do it for you – because others have been down this path before you.

And so up came a headline from back in December, in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: "Gingrich carries lots of baggage from the past," which at this late date has the ring of dog-bites-man. Another headline, this one from Salon, observed, "His baggage has baggage."

But sometimes I enter combinations of words for which Google has no recommendations to offer. Ooh! A sign of an original idea on my part? And when I searched for "Newt Gingrich luggage," I was asked whether I really meant "baggage." For good measure, the search brought back results for "baggage," not "luggage."

As I said, with idioms, you have to get it just right.

The time may come when baggage has picked up so much, well, baggage that it loses its literal meaning altogether, and the hypothetical bellman above may ask simply, "How many bags do you have?"

Speaking of which, I need to get packing. I also need to consider what I can leave behind.

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