Blog Post

Can A Path Become A Journey?

I’ve been a big fan of the Oxford English Dictionary for several years now. It started with an undergraduate English project on the word, nip. You should look it up sometime; talk about a word with lots of meanings.

I had a debate in a team meeting recently about the difference between a path and a journey. We were trying to figure out how to describe the way a person’s career unfolds over time. In the case of our study, the participants’ career choices were both serendipitous and obligatory.

So what was the best word to describe this series of events? Which word could encompass both the seeming randomness of life events with the sudden life focus that resulted?

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first definition of path is:

A way or track formed by the continued treading of pedestrians or animals, rather than one deliberately planned and made; a narrow unmade and (usually) unenclosed way that people on foot can use.

Ironically, our team though that a path contained too much predictability and didn’t alude enough to the circuitous way these men discovered, navigated and followed through their careers.

By contrast, the noun journey originally described “a day” or “the distance travelled in a day or a specified number of days;” this use, for the most part, is considered obsolete. It’s not until the third definition that a more familiar usage is documented:

A ‘spell’ or continued course of going or travelling, having its beginning and end in place or time, and thus viewed as a distinct whole; a march, ride, drive, or combination of these or other modes of progression to a certain more or less distant place, or extending over a certain distance or space of time; an excursion or expedition to some distance; a round of travel.

Or for those who prefer the more figurative use of the word, the OED offered the alternate definition of “the ‘pilgrimage’ or passage through life.” Because of this definition which we never looked up, we settled on journey. It seemed to our group that we wanted to describe the sum of events in what we perceived as their life’s passage. Disney movies and epics, I think, trained us to prefer this definition over the others of the word; though the more humble definitions didn’t come to our minds.

Definition nerdiness aside, the fact that we had the debate at all is interesting. The right word was so key to how we told the story that we wanted to be sure everyone held the same meaning. We wanted to be sure our audience made all the right associations when we described these mens’ journey. Our word choice meant the difference between a trodden path through local woods and the epic journey of heros through deserts and over time.

This is just one diction debate of many; I think I’ve had more debates about language than visual design since I’ve been a “designer.” But it’s a path I really don’t mind traversing over and over again on this journey.