o I gotta wonder where this phrase came from. “Floatation Device”
Think about it. Someone was tasked with writing copy. He might have been a tech writer or just an engineer. Whatever. Planes were probably mandated at some point to carry these things (like anyone could survive a 300mph water landing and then bob in the water and not go hypothermic before help arrived (Ah, the Hudson landing, you might say. From pictures, it looks like everyone just stood on the wings with their shoes filled with water). I don’t know if they ever actually got used.
But this guy (or gal) was tasked with it. “It’s a seat cushion. It floats. You hang onto it after a crash until help arrives,” Hal Madeupname, the hard-bitten, chain-smoking (this was in the sixties, when workplaces permitted it) engineering boss explained. “We need to provide the safety-doc and stew-speech copy boys a name. Come up with something by Friday and pneumatic-tube it over to them.”
And there our press-ganged writer sat, smoking a camel, his nicotine-stained fingers drumming on his desk blotter calendar. Perhaps he touched a flask to his lips (yes, the sixties). What to call this thing?
“Floating cushion?” “Buoyant pillow?” “Float seat?”
But “Flotation Device”. Six syllables. Wow.
And the amazing thing is that the word stuck, accepted into the phraseology of English and never changed. “Sport Utility Vehicle” did change to SUV. “African Americans” has remained unchanged (though since the word transmutes every decade, it will likely be replaced). But this cumbersome phase hung on, not being acronymed into something easier to transmit through speech and text. Perhaps, since it doesn’t so up often in everyday speech, there is no push to smooth it down (as English words often are beneath the torrent of usage). But why not just say “float”? Or “raft”? Or whatever. Why keep using it?
There is a river of language, which, like the Mississippi, flows between wide banks, changing its course this way and that over time. Many words rush through our consciousness, borne towards the great Archaic Sea. And lost in a side tributary bobs this “floatation device”, unmoving, unchanging, lost. Who knows how long it might last.