How Many 9-Letter Words Can You Make With Airport Codes? - Atlas Obscura
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How Many 9-Letter Words Can You Make With Airport Codes?

Perth + Chattanooga + Nice = PERCHANCE

HAM is for Hamburg. And HAMPERMAN.
HAM is for Hamburg. And HAMPERMAN. Public Domain

Need a good bachelor party activity? Tell your guests to hop on a plane at Girona–Costa Brava Airport in Spain (GRO), and fly to Tsentralny Airport in Omsk, Russia (OMS). From there, if possible, have them grab another flight to Manchester International, in England (MAN). Once they’ve touched down, they will have experienced three vastly different cities, sure. But they also will have spelled out a word: GROOMSMAN.

Most of the world’s functioning airports have a three-letter identification code, assigned to them by the International Air Transit Association. For instance, New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport is JFK, Los Angeles International is LAX, and Frankfurt Airport is FRA. Aviation professionals use the codes as shorthand while tagging baggage or flying from place to place. But as artist Parker Higgins recently realized, you can also use them to play a fun game: inventing three-city itineraries that spell out nine-letter words.

Higgins was inspired by a friend of his, who used to spend a lot of time between London, Stockholm and Berlin. “The location field on her Twitter bio said LONSTOBER,” he says. This always struck him as a great word, he says, although technically it isn’t one. He figured there must be others like it, only realer.

Higgins wrote a Python script that stuck together trios of three-letter airport codes, and cross-referenced the results with an actual dictionary. He then posted the results on Twitter:

So how many are there? As with most thought experiments, mileage may vary depending on your criteria. “There are two weird pressure points you can push on,” Higgins says. “The first is, what counts as a word?”

Higgins started with a fairly limited vocabulary list, and came out with just 36 words that qualified, from AEROMETER (Sochi, Russia + Nome, Alaska + Terceira, Portugal) to TRICHROME (Bristol, Tennessee + Châteauroux, France + Nome again, Nome again, jiggity jig). (You can see these mapped here.) Later, he decided to use the entire Mac OS dictionary instead, which spit out far more contenders—over 100.

An aerial view of LAX, en route to ATIVES.
An aerial view of LAX, en route to ATIVES. Don Ramey Logan/CC BY-SA 4.0

The second thing up for debate is, what counts as an airport? Some of the codes that work well as infixes or suffixes belong to airfields that are difficult to get to. If you want to fly ENSHELTER, for example, you’ll have to get a flight out of a one-runway airport in the Netherlands that only hosts local aviation clubs. LAXATIVES counts only if you give a pass to tiny Darke County Airport in Ohio.

Regardless of one’s stringency—and the feasibility of the trips—piecing together these itineraries invites pleasing coincidences. DABBLINGS, for example, starts in Daytona, Florida, crosses the whole United States to Bellingham, Washington, and then hops way over to Nagasaki, Japan—a great trip for a geographic dilettante. And if you love the capital of the Netherlands, you can jet away without really leaving—fly from there to Portugal and then Damascus, and you’ll spell out AMSTERDAM.

Now arriving.
Now arriving. Photo Illustration: Aïda Amer

Other word-journeys are more ironic. Two out of three of the destinations that make up GLOBALIST are in the same country. TRIANGLED—Bristol, Tennessee to Angoulême, France to St. Petersburg, Russia—does technically form a triangle, but it is, as Higgins points out, an extremely obtuse one.

It’s difficult to imagine actually taking one of these trips. If you’re hell-bent on making one happen, though, your best bet is probably SUNBURSTS: appropriately, an American West Coast jaunt that takes you from Hailey, Idaho to the Californian climes of Burbank and Santa Rosa. Higgins has already thought about it: “It’s about $350 to do SUNBURSTS,” he says, although it involves connections in San Francisco, which you would have to gloss over when bragging.

But his favorite is a little less practical. “Suppose you’re flying from Brownsville, Texas to Washington D.C.,” he says. “If you go just a little bit out of your way, and connect in Melbourne, Australia, you can fly BROMELIAD.” Hey, a word nerd can dream.