Is it right to use the word ‘plane’ ?




The case against

By The Aviation Historian’s Nick Stroud

Plane is:

a noun

1) a flat surface on which a straight line joining any two points on it would wholly lie

2) a level of existence or thought

an adjective

1) completely level or flat

a verb

1) to soar without moving the wings (bird or airborne object)

2) skim over the surface of the water

…but it is NOT an aircraft. The correct word is aeroplane, or airplane if you’re an American and absolutely must.

The case for

By Hush-Kit


Plane is a simple word that is widely understood.


Like most aeronautical words, aeroplane comes from French. Use of the word ‘aeroplane’ in British English predates the actual aeroplane by at least thirty years (and was around even longer in France). I’m not sure why it predates the Wright Brothers, perhaps it was used to describe the aeroplanes that failed to fly in that period, or maybe it was used to describe gliders.

The word ‘level or flat’, is from the Latin platanus and is nothing to do with the word aeroplane.

The ‘plane’ part in aeroplane comes from the Greek ‘planos’ meaning wanderer (I’m not sure if these words are derived from an earlier shared root word perhaps describing a plains wanderer).


Aeroplane has been around longer than the concept we use it to describe today (a powered, non-rotary wing, heavier-than-air flying machine). Insisting on an apostrophe before ‘plane’ is as archaic as putting one before bus (from omnibus, originally from the French voiture omnibus) or before car (motor-car). Car is a good example, the word was in popular use since the 14th Century, it meant cart, carriage or wagon. In 1895 the horseless carriage was called a ‘motor-car’; the very next year many were now simply calling it the car. We drive cars and we fly planes, there’s no need for us to drive ‘cars and ‘planes.



Plane is universally understood in the English-speaking world, to deny this is perverse and not very useful. The difference in time between the creation of the word aeroplane and airplane is tiny.

The American ‘airplane’ sounds a bit silly to some British English speakers, though many Brits do use it unintentionally. This corruption of aeroplane was used as least as early in 1907 and remains in service with most of the English speaking world today, to ignore that could be seen as arrogant. To be fair, the Americans invented the airplane, so should be allowed to call it what they like.



  1. Michael Carley

    The OED gives two meanings for `aeroplane’. The first, now obsolete, refers to `the principal lifting surface of an aircraft’; the second refers to an aeroplane. In both cases the word is given as deriving from `plane’ as a surface. One of the earliest uses given of the word is Octave Chanute in 1894:

    It was not until 1842 that an aeroplane, as we now understand the term, consisting of planes to sustain the weight, and of a screw to propel, was first proposed.

    Personally, I tell my students to use `aeroplane’ or `aircraft’ to avoid ambiguities when you need to talk about a plane in the sense of `flat surface’, for example, the ground.

  2. Lord Peter Whimsy

    Use of the word ‘aeroplane’ in British English predates the actual aeroplane
    Let get something straight, there is no such thing as British English, it is simply English. We do not speak a version of our own language. Being the most widely spoken foreign language in the world also makes it the most widely misused and misspelled.

  3. YuppieScum

    Surely the correct use of “plane” when referring to an aircraft is ‘plane, indicating a contraction of the full word, aeroplane.

    Further, it is *never* correct for the BBC to use the word “airplane.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s