It has never occurred to me to look up and really think about the signs.  I have been coming in and out of OR Tambo International  Airport for so many years and I hadn’t noticed these signs until one day while getting on the lift heading to Terminal Departures that I realized that the words, Terminal Departures, sound terminally wrong. As if the airport had suddenly become a hospital or an infirmary where the terminal departed and arrived.  I thought about it during my efforts to improve my English language skills after I made a mistake and used the word homage in the wrong context; the person in question was still very much alive. So following this rather embarrassing episode I was determined to renew my focus and attention on the  ‘true’ meaning of words and to using words in their most appropriate contexts.

So there I was subconsciously brushing up on my English language skills when it suddenly occurred to me that the signs at the OR Tambo International Airport reading: Terminal Departures and Terminal Arrivals might not be grammatically correct.  ‘How so?’ a friend asked curiously over pizza and wine at Bambanani restaurant in Melville, Johannesburg. ‘ I don’t quite know exactly’ I said realizing that I had not yet fully formed my thoughts ‘ I think the best way to explain it is,  it sounds grammatically wrong’.  ‘But why?’ she persisted ‘why is it wrong, what is it supposed to be’ she probed.

‘Well first of all’ I said putting my pizza down and folding my hands together for effect “I think it would sound better if you said Departure Terminal instead of Terminal Departure. The way the words are arranged give it a completely different meaning. If you say Terminal Departures it sounds to me like people who are departing are terminal, i.e. have a terminal illness never to return, or the terminal (the object) itself is departing. Whereas Departure Terminal sounds more like a place or an area where people go to depart or a place where people arrive at.  It’s a small change but it makes a whole lot of difference in meaning’ I concluded thinking privately to myself ‘not bad hey nige!’

Of course I needed to be clear and certain of my own hypothesis.  I knew I had to consult the dictionary to verify if  what I had observed and believed to be true was indeed so. It took me a while because I had to be equally ready for my theory to go to the dogs. The last time I traveled I took my dictionary as the only book to help me understand and while it was great to have it beside me, I must admit it was not of  any use in assisting me to decode  the language and the meaning of the words in Denmark even if the words spoken were in English.

Despite my fears and past experiences in coding and language, this time I was more confident in my own judgement and I also had a huge incentive or ROI (Return of Investment).

My friends told me in between sips of wine that they often deferred reading my blog posts because they thought them “too deep and serious” as they often required one to be in the “right frame of mind” to read them which,  in their case, almost never happened. They promised to read my blog this time, though, if I expanded on my theory. These friends of mine who appreciate my writing without reading it told me that they would not only read my blog but would actually look forward to reading it if I  wrote an explainer on my Terminal Departure theory. Imagine that!  This was an exciting challenge.

So I had to be thorough.

According to the Concise Oxford dictionary, published in 1991 the word Terminal (an adjective and noun) means an ending (of a disease) in death, fatal. Or a patient in the last stage of a fatal disease; a morbid condition; forming the last stage of a fatal disease or in colloquial terms; ruinous disastrous very great ( terminal laziness) or forming a limit or terminus terminal station.

Since no definition of anything can be final without consulting Google I thought it prudent to include Google’s definition of the word.

Terminal (adjective) forming or situated at the end or extremity of something. When used as a noun the word Terminal means the end of a railway line or other transport.

So based on the above definitions the signage officials at OR Tambo International Airport and I are both right in our in understanding of the word Terminal.  In this case it is the context that changes the meaning or where the words are placed.

Terminal Departure or Arrival: puts more emphasis on the word terminal and highlights the Oxford dictionary meaning; the end of a slow, fatal disease, death.  While Departure Terminal sounds more like a place where one goes to do something, it highlights or puts the emphasis on the Googled meaning; a place one goes to.

This of course is much to do about nothing. I realized that the reason why I never noticed the words Terminal Arrival or Terminal Departures was because I only focused  on what I wanted. So when I looked at the signs before I only looked for Arrivals or Departures and I never paid much attention to the words preceding them.

Now that I have noticed the Terminal part I realized that  we’ve gotten used to it and have subconsciously  inferred the appropriate meaning for ourselves without thinking too much about how the words are arranged. The human mind is an amazing organ.  I love the genius behind it.

Of course I am not blind to the philosophical meanings embedded in this blog post. We will all at some point arrive at a point where we must depart. But I am almost certain that we’d all rather do this at an airport terminal instead of a terminal airport!


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