There are plenty of expressions that we take for granted in English. We say them to others without thinking twice, and we expect others to know what we mean and to respond in kind.
For example, we say “good morning” as a greeting to others. When you think about it, the expression in full should be “I wish you a good morning.”
However, we truncate it and are aware that the person being greeted knows what we mean.
And, when we are leaving, we might tell someone to “have a good one.”
Again, the full expression should be “I hope you have a good day,” but thanks to social convention, the expression has been shortened to the aforementioned four monosyllabic words.
Today, we are going to look at another expression, one that you use when someone you know is about to travel and you want to wish them well.
Today’s expression is “safe travels.”
What is the meaning of “safe travels”?
Simply put, we say “safe travels” when we want to wish someone a safe journey. The whole thing should be “I wish you safe travels,” yet we abbreviate it, knowing full-well that the “I wish you …” part is implied.
You can also tell someone “safe travels” when you want to wish them good fortune during their trip. In other words, telling someone “safe travels” isn’t just about the safety of the trip. It is also about having a good trip.
This can range from relaxing accommodations all the way to the trip being filled with fun and enjoyable activities.
A closer look at “safe travels”
Today, travel is an easy affair. You go to the airport, you check in, you wait in a crowded terminal, you board a plane, and you arrive at your destination usually on the same day.
The worst thing you’ll have to deal with nowadays is an obnoxious passenger sitting next to you on the plane or a little jet lag after you’ve arrived.
However, this wasn’t the case for our earlier ancestors. In fact, not too long ago, travel was a perilous affair, one riddled with dangers.
For starters, while a trip can take us mere hours, it took our ancestors weeks.
And, our ancestors didn’t have the luxury of paved roads to ease their journey. This is not to mention the possibility that they would have an unpleasant run-in with wild animals or robbers.
Ergo, is it any wonder that our ancestors used to wish each other a safe journey, a habit we still carry on to this day?
In fact, the origin of the word “travel” itself is quite interesting.
The origin of the word “travel”
Dhirendra Verma, the Indian poet, wrote a book called “Word Origins,” and in it, he explores the word “travel.”
According to Verma, travel can trace its roots back to the French word “travail,” which means to work hard, especially if the work is laborious or painful. “Travail” can also refer to simple mental or physical exertion.
In any case, “travail” itself comes from the Medieval Latin term “trepalium,” which was an ancient instrument of torture.
That’s right, the french word for work came from a Latin word that was used in torture. Sort of gives you an idea of how the French view work, doesn’t it?
The “trepalium” consisted of three stakes, and victims were tied to it and set on fire.
Ergo, for many of our great-great-great-grandfathers, travel wasn’t this leisurely activity you did to have fun. It was hard work that almost bordered on torture.
Back to “safe travels”
As a matter of fact, if you were to use Google Books Ngram Viewer, which lets you know the popularity of various words or phrases at different points in time, you would find that although “safe travels” has only been used over the past century, the term “safe journey” has been in use since the 18th century, if not before that.
However, the relative safety of travel today might explain why some people might be irked by wishing someone “safe travels.”
Instead, they would prefer if we started wishing each other a “fun trip.”
After all, whereas the former paints a world that is scary and dangerous, the latter shows a world that is fun, full of adventure, and brimming with new things to discover.
Nevertheless, I believe that it is fine to use “safe travels.” It is a remnant from an earlier time, and the fact that we no longer have to worry about our safety as we are traveling just shows how far we’ve come as a species.
What’s more, given that most of us are aware that travel is relatively safe, “safe travels” has changed its meaning a bit and has come to mean “I hope that you have a fun and enjoyable trip, one that flows by smooth.”
Interestingly, there is a poem in the New Yorker entitled “Safe Travels.” It’s a nice little piece.
Synonyms for “safe travels”
There are several synonyms for “safe travels.” We’ve already come across “safe journey.” Let’s take a look at a few more.
This is the same expression, but it is in the imperative form.
Obviously, this isn’t exactly an order. It’s more of a wish, which is similar to “be careful” or “look after yourself.” You would probably use this expression with someone you were somewhat familiar with.
This one is almost the same. The only difference is that you can add “have” at the beginning in the imperative form, giving you “have a safe trip.”
This latter expression is sort of you “ordering” the other person to have a safe trip, but I’m sure you understand that there aren’t any real orders involved. You’re just wishing them well.
This expression comes to us from the french. It literally translates to “good trip,” and the meaning is that you wish someone to have a good trip.
This one is in the vein of “have a fun trip.” It evokes the same idea of experiencing a trouble-free trip that goes by smoothly.
However, you also want to reserve this one for people with whom you are familiar. The term smooth is a bit informal, and you can’t really use it with your boss for instance.
Difference between “safe travels” and “safe travel”
Does it matter if you use the plural “travels” versus the singular “travel”?
Well, no, it doesn’t really.
You see, when you use “travels,” the plural form, you could be doing one of two things.
On the one hand, you might mean to use the countable form of the word “travel,” which implies that the person’s trip will contain several separate travels and stopovers.
For instance, you would be using this meaning if you were talking to someone about to go on a Eurotrip.
On the other hand, you could be using the plural form of the word to talk about its abstract. It’s a habit we, English speakers, inherited from the French.
It’s sort of similar to when we say “my apologies” or “my condolences.”
However, when you use “travel,” the singular form, you are using the uncountable form.
Ergo, it actually tries to encompass all possible travels occurring within a specific time period, which makes it give off the same meaning as the pluralized abstract “travels.”
So, you could tell someone “safe travel,” and the overall meaning wouldn’t change from telling them “safe travels.”
In fact, not only is “safe travel” older than “safe travels,” but it is also more popular.
Hey fellow Linguaholics! It’s me, Marcel. I am the proud owner of linguaholic.com. Languages have always been my passion and I have studied Linguistics, Computational Linguistics and Sinology at the University of Zurich. It is my utmost pleasure to share with all of you guys what I know about languages and linguistics in general.