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A ‘re-accommodating’ hospitality industry

After the “dragged passenger” incident, United Airlines has an opportunity to learn what it really means to “accommodate” the public.

United Airlines planes are parked at their gates as another plane, top, taxis past them at George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston on July 8, 2015.
David J. Phillip/AP
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  • Ruth Walker

Until a few weeks ago, I would have said the most important thing about the word accommodate is that it has two “c’s” and two “m’s.” It’s one of those words an editor reflexively checks for spelling whenever it appears, even in other people’s publications.

But then came the incident in which police officers dragged an airline passenger off a plane in Chicago after he declined to deplane “voluntarily” with three others to make room for four airline employees en route to their next assignment.

United Airlines president Oscar Munoz offended multitudes with an initial tweet that reeked of Orwellian corporatespeak: “I apologize for having to re-
accommodate these customers.”

His follow-up efforts sounded more heartfelt. But cellphone videos of David Dao being banged into armrests as he was dragged down the aisle of United Flight 3411 have given new meaning to the expression “bumped from a flight.”

Dr. Dao’s “re-accommodation” turned out to be in a Chicago hospital.

But accommodate ought to suggest things that “properly fit together,” as John Kelly noted on the Mashed Radish etymology blog. As in passengers in airplane seats, personnel on the roster, and flights in the air, we might add.

Accommodate comes from Latin, and as Mr. Kelly writes, “has three basic parts: Ac- (from ad, ‘to’), and commodare (‘to provide, fit, oblige’), in turn composed of com- (from cum, ‘together,’ here in an intensive sense of ‘altogether’), and modus.”

The word has a wide range of meanings: giving someone space, time (“accommodating your schedule”), or flexibility (“accommodating his meal preferences”).

The United episode should have been an exchange of one of these for another: “If you can accommodate us by giving up your seat, we can accommodate you on a flight leaving in just an hour.”

But when something that starts out as a free-market transaction between buyer and seller ends with a police intervention, it can be hard to remember that the airlines are part of what’s broadly defined as “the hospitality industry.”

Was Dao, in a Chicago hospital, receiving “hospitality” – or just medical care? How are hospital and hospitality related?

Hospital came into English in the mid-13th century meaning a “shelter for the needy,” according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. It was borrowed from an Old French word meaning “hostel, shelter, lodging,” the dictionary adds, and its ultimate source is a Latin root, hospes, meaning host or guest.

By the early 15th century, hospital meant specifically a “charitable institution” to house the needy. By the 1540s, the word meant an institution for the “sick or wounded.”

Hospital, hostel, and hotel are all fairly close word cousins, branching from that same Latin root with, historically, some overlap in meaning.

All three are very accommodating, in different ways. Let’s hope they don’t have to do any “re-accommodating” again anytime soon.