Beyond Words - Language Blog

The Language of Travel Documents

Spring break is upon us. Do you know where your documents are? One of the biggest hassles for international travelers is gathering all manner of necessary forms and applications to make their dream vacations a reality. Despite rising fuel prices and tightening airport security measures, millions of Americans are expected to zigzag the globe in the coming weeks. For the globetrotters out there, here are a few etymologies that may come in handy:

You can’t start your adventures abroad without a passport, a document that countries have been issuing to their citizens – albeit under different titles – since ancient times. While these thin booklets containing a traveler’s basic personal and national information acquired the name “passport” from the Old French only in the 1500s, the appearance of similar documents has been recorded in several Turkish and Persian scripts from the 5th century BC. The “port” of “passport” is unlikely to have been a sea port, but rather more akin to the French porte, meaning “door” or “gate,” and referring to the city wall gates that travelers were permitted to enter with necessary document in hand. A fun bit of trivia about passports is that, before the advent of photography, detailed descriptions of the passport-holder’s appearance were used to identify each traveler.

In addition to a valid passport, some countries also require visitors to obtain a visa prior to entry. Visas grant their holders official authorization to enter a country for a specified amount of time and with an expressed purpose. The practice of requiring visas came into general use in the beginning of the 19th century in Europe and drew from the Latin charta visa, meaning “paper that has been seen.” One of the most common types of visas is the Schengen, created in 1985 as the result of a treaty signed in Schengen, Luxembourg. Obtaining this type of visa allows a traveler to move freely about the Schengen Area, which consists of 25 European countries. Similar visas exist in South America and Africa, granting their holders access to multiple countries under one document.

Enjoy your Spring Break! We hope you have a safe and relaxing time!


Photograph by Michael Philip Manheim: Airplane Coming in for a Landing Over Neptune Road Homes, 1973