English in the sky

Daniel Brint Language Leave a Comment

Planes are an interesting place to think about English. They reflect changes in vocabulary due to social attitudes, the language of warnings and instructions, and the need to allay fears. The term ‘air hostess,’ is dead and buried, thank goodness. ‘Flight attendant’ rocketed to use between the 1960’s and 2000 (according to frequency sreaches) but has since often been substituted with ‘cabin crew,’ perhaps due to the slightly derogatory, menial sense of ‘attend.’ Unfortunately, the singular of ‘cabin crew’ is ‘a member of cabin crew,’ which hardly trips of the tongue.  “Crew unified at the same time as it creates hierarchies – flight, cabin and ground crews (in that order of importance, and pay.)


It’s not what you say it’s how you say it matters on planes. ‘In the unlikely event of a landing water,’ instead of ‘If we land on water.’ ‘Should there be a drop in oxygen…’ reminds students of grammar that we use ‘should’ instead of ‘if’ when we don’t expect something to happen.


If the cabin crew are British, listen out for some useful expressions –


  • Any empties? (used cans or bottles)

  • Do you want ice with that?

  • Still or fizzy? (water options)

  • That’ll be five pounds (pay me)


Of course, one of the most interesting aspects of flight English is the captain’s chat. As Tom Wolfe explained in his book The Right Stuff, ever since pilots were able to speak to the passengers or control tower there have existed strict unwritten rules about the tone of voice to be used. You should sound relaxed, even a bit bored, as if it were an enormous effort just to form a sentence. This rule must be observed even if you are flying into a storm with one engine missing and a co-pilot with food poisoning.


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