David L. Hoof

Strictly Speaking

Use Words Exactly to Avoid Confusion

July 12, 2014

Tags: words, definitions, missusage, denotations, connotations, macadam, tarmac, hardstands, airports, landing strips


Tarmac is short for Tarmacadam, a road surfacing material patented by Edgar P. Hooley in 1901. It is a perfectly legitimate word based on asphalt, the highest boiling point and least volatile mixture remaining after oil is distilled to remove the lower boiling point fractions. Straight off the first fraction from the well, oil is a mixture of naturally occurring organic compounds from methane to polynuclear aromatics.

As a driving surface for motor vehicles, tarmac is usually adequate, and served adequately for landing light planes, even the smaller, early commercial passenger aircraft. But tarmac is too soft to support the landing of larger commercial and military aircraft. The word itself defines when it (the word, not the material) should (and should not) be applied.
When the surface is tar + macadam, it is tarmac. When the road surface is sand and aggregated calcium silicate, it is concrete.

Modern runaways and taxiing areas are exclusively concrete. Because they are not as soft as their predecessor, tarmac, they are called hardstands.

Strictly speaking, no major airport in the world has landed or taxiied an aircraft on a tarmac surface in the last sixty-five years. Yet reporters are loathe to abandon a word that most listeners associate, generically, with a landing surface. As historian Will Durant once quipped, “Tradition sanctifies absurdity.”

If you want to make yourself some easy money, the next time you find yourself awaiting a flight, bet the passenger next to you than no flight will touch tarmac at this airport in the next five hours. They will check the descent paths, see an incoming 747 and say, “You’re on.” As soon as the plane hits the hardstands, collect your bet.

Your claim is based on a unarguably valid point. Heavy aircraft would sink into tarmac up to the engines. And when fire erupts from jet fuel, tarmac has the additional inconvenience of burning. Because it is already oxidized, the concrete of hardstands does not.

Selected Works

suspense mystery
For every emerging independent woman today, men can be little better than annoying at best and downright monstrous at worst. A creation of a stolen NSA computer program, Fiona Halloran is launched into the present to assist faltering novelist Andy Delaney capture the market that has evaded him, the one for and about women. But there’s an emerging risk: increasing personal danger to them both. This doesn’t stop when they finish his latest novel, Babes & Bastards. It just spills over to the next best seller in a series starring Fiona Halloran, Nun No More. Look for it soon in a bookstore near you.
In the dying Montana town of Sanctuary, helf-Crow Deputy Redfawn Kravitz relentlessly tracks the killer of Senate candidate Jeb Holloway, who then starts picking off the best suspects, one-by-one.
Using only sounds as clues, a blind man must locate his six-year-old niece before kidnappers kill her.
historical mystery
Just before Oktoberfest in 1931, Adolf Hitler's niece and secret lover is found dead in a locked room in the Fuhrer's Munich flat. Pressured by the Nazis, the police rule it a suicide, but evidence suggests a cold blooded execution. If the killer can be outed, widespread outrage will thwart a maniac's rush to power.
A cheated wife goes way overboard to get revenge on - and a fair settlement from -- her uberrich husband, with terrifyingly hysterical results.
literary mystery
Little Gods is prep school noir, like A Separate Peace as if it were written by Alfred Hitchcock.
action adventure
A clandestine biowar attack on America reduces society to medieval chaos.
Approaching Christmas, a winter blizzard locks Chicago in snow. Among its residents, retired FBI poisons expert Tad Lindholm is a haunted man. Haunted by his past, haunted by his recently dead lover Yvette, haunted by the long shadows of too many empty booze bottles, haunted by depression, and tempted by an arsenal of deadly doses to end it all. At the same time, he is trapped by lingering suspicions that he alone synthesized the traceless toxins responsible for recent deaths. Numb with stubbornness, encircled by intersecting mysteries, Lindholm pursues the real killers among his enemies, only to discover an unimaginably personal betrayal.