I like to fancy myself a seasoned traveler, so imagine my surprise when I learned I might be using the wrong term for a common type of luggage.
Growing up, my parents always said “rollerboard” in reference to wheeled suitcase, and I followed suit. But on a recent text thread, I noticed a friend wrote “rollaboard,” prompting me to question everything I’ve ever believed.
But fortunately, I’m not the only one who is confused. A very non-scientific online poll from 2010 found that 53% of respondents say “rollaboard,” 32% go with “rollerboard” and 15% “have no idea.”
Still, officially speaking, which is it? Rollaboard? Rollerboard? Roll-aboard? Roll Aboard? Something else entirely? I turned to some experts ― and the vast archives of the internet ― to find out.
“‘Roll aboard’ was the original term,” linguist and lexicographer Ben Zimmer told HuffPost. “‘Rollaboard’ was trademarked by Robert Plath for his company Travelpro in 1991, though luggage appeared under the brand name “Roll-Aboard” as early as 1985.”
Indeed, a 1985 advertisement in the New Jersey newspaper the Daily Record presents a collection of bags with the descriptor “U.S. Luggage Roll-Aboard Group,” available at M. Epstein’s department store in Morristown.
“[The ad] claims a trademark, but does not look like luggage on wheels,” said etymologist Barry Popik, who also shared the ad with HuffPost, along with many other clippings.
In the early 1990s, Travelpro’s “rollabord” suitcase appeared in several newspapers. References to nonspecific “roll-aboard” luggage cropped up in 1994, and from 1993 onward, there were ads for “rollerboard” suitcases as well. A 1999 clipping from a Canadian newspaper included a reference to “roller board suitcases.”
“‘Rollerboard’ began appearing as a more generic term in the 1990s,” Zimmer explained. “It may have started out as a misinterpretation of ‘roll-aboard,’ but it also avoided the trademarked term, as this 2003 USA Today article suggests.”
Even more recently, Jonathan Franzen used the word “rollerboard” in his 2018 book of essays “The End of the End of the Earth” ― much to the dismay of pilot and blogger Patrick Smith. Author Gary Shteyngart also went with that version of the term in his novel “Lake Success,” which was published that same year.
Interestingly, “rollberboard” appears to have been trademarked by a skateboard company called Rollerboard International, so the term evokes a completely different meaning outside the travel context.
In reference to the suitcase, Zimmer noted that “rollerboard” is a great example of an eggcorn ― an alteration of a word or phrase that results from the misinterpretation or mishearing of one or more of its elements. The term “eggcorn” is itself an eggcorn for “acorn,” and unlike a malapropism, this reshaping of the original word or phrase still makes sense and seems logical in the same context, just in a different way.
As lexicographer Jesse Sheidlower told HuffPost, “It’s ‘roll-aboard’ ― which could be written with a hyphen, a space, or as a closed compound ― because it rolls aboard a plane.”
Still, the “rollerboard” eggcorn also has some logic because the term evokes an object with wheels, like a skateboard or a piece of luggage.
“Re-analyzing elements of words or compounds is known as ‘folk etymology’ among other names,” Sheidlower noted. “Often this happens when less-common words or elements are replaced by more-common ones.”
He shared the example of “bridegroom,” which in the past was more like “bride-goom,” as “goom” was Middle English for “man” (stemming from “guma” and “brydguma” in Old English.) As “goom” fell out of use, the latter half of the word was replaced with “groom” ― a more common word that meant “boy” or “male child.”
“Another example is ‘wheelbarrel,’ a common variant of ‘wheelbarrow,’ because the word ‘barrow’ is relatively uncommon, and a wheelbarrow does look like something that could be made from a half of a barrel,” Sheidlower added. “In your example, neither ‘roll’ nor ‘aboard’ are particularly unusual, but ‘roller’ is very common, and ‘rollerboard’ is at least a plausible-sounding compound.”
So while “rollaboard” may have come first, the gist is that both “rollaboard” and “rollerboard” work just fine. And I no longer have to question the nature of my reality ― at least not with regard to this.