Published online by Cambridge University Press: 13 July 2019
Keywords (Williams 2014 ) and its sequel New Keywords (Bennett et al. 2005) both fail to include ‘travel’ among their contents. The generic label ‘travel writing’ nevertheless yokes together this term, designating various forms of mobility, with another keyword relating to human communication and creativity. The meanings of each have evolved considerably, and belong to complex semantic fields, either closely policed or alternatively prised open to permit various meanings. Jacques Meunier (1992, 148) claims that splitting in two the word ‘écrivain-voyageur’ (travel writer) leaves not ‘travel’ and ‘writer’ as separate entities, but instead a dissected travel writer in which the two elements cannot be split. He suggests that travelling and writing are intertwined, interdependent and often indistinguishable activities (see also Butor 1972). To understand travel writing as a genre, however, there is a need to analyse each component keyword before exploring the implications of their intersections.
‘Travel’ first appeared in English in the fifteenth century, a derivation from ‘travail’, borrowed directly from the French to betoken bodily or intellectual labour as well as other forms of hardship and suffering (including childbirth). Although – in a title such as Gulliver's Travels – the word was also used elliptically to designate accounts of such journeying, its meaning has stabilized to describe acts of travelling, with elements of inherent exertion often foregrounded according to the term's etymological roots: ‘travel’ is linked – like ‘travail’ itself – to the ‘tripalium’, an instrument of torture made up of three stakes to which the victim would be tied and burnt with fire (Fussell 1980, 39). This focus on physical ordeal distinguishes ‘travel’ from its equivalent in other languages: the roots of ‘voyage’ in French, for instance, focus on the physical path of the journey itself rather than the physical effort required to follow it.
Recognizing a text as ‘travel writing’ depends on a confident understanding of what constitutes ‘travel’, and also of what distinguishes this activity from numerous other forms of displacement, notably ‘tourism’ (Buzard 1993; Urbain 1993). ‘Travel’ is also associated with various modifiers – ‘slow’ (see slowness), ‘extreme’, ‘dark’, ‘necessary’, ‘vertical’ – that reveal the practices with which it is linked and contexts in which it occurs.