Are you on vacation or on holiday?

Ah, summer vacation. It leads inevitably to a reduced amount of blog posting. But it raises all kinds of other questions, including this one: why do Americans usually call their breaks from work “vacations” while others prefer “holidays?”

If you’re entirely steeped in American English (as many of my readers are), you might not realize that this distinction exists. You also might not be aware that vacation used in the sense of “a period of leisure time away from work” is a recently adopted sense for the word (relatively speaking).

Vacation (under various spellings) has existed in English at least since Chaucer (he used it in The Canterbury Tales around 1386). That was Middle English, frequently not understandable by modern speakers. The word came from Old French, and has relatives in Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and Latin. (Most of this is coming from OED, if you’re looking for deeper source material.)

But the many shades of meaning of this older vacation are closer to its Latin root: they mean a literal vacating of a place (or of an occupation), or a literal time when normal activity was suspended. When there’s a reference to ‘a time of vacation,‘ this also tends to mean that the place referenced — typically a school or government institution — has been literally vacated during that period. They’re closed. No one’s home. They’ve vacated the premises until the next session begins. These vacations tended to be fixed in time: the courts might have a well-established Easter Vacation, for example, while a university would have a fixed schedule of vacations throughout the year.

It’s important to note that as far as this use of the word went, the vacation was usually associated with a place (or institution), not with the people there. When it was used relative to persons, vacation usually meant something more along the lines of the lifting of a burden, or the release from an obligation. What’s interesting, to my reading of the historical citations at least, is that as time passes the drift toward the modern sense of the word seems apparent, especially by the early to mid 1800s.

That’s not long before there was a branching of meaning, when vacation came to indicate a restful event enjoyed by an individual — a dedicated but perhaps floating period of time, often an entitlement, not necessarily having anything to do with the function or the working calendar of an institution.

If you look up vacation in a dictionary — even many of the American ones — one of the definitions is “a holiday.” That’s the more traditional word used to describe what Americans consider a vacation. Holiday (used in this sense) is another word that goes back a long way (at least the 1500s; arguably the 1400s), but which comes from the Germanic side of English, not the Latin. Americans primarily use holiday to refer to religious celebrations or to days when the government suspends most activities. These apply to (most) everyone, and while a lot of people get these holidays as vacation days, we don’t tend to treat them as “a vacation.”

The beginning of the use of vacation as the equivalent of the British (and at that time American) holiday arose around the 1870s. It began, as so many other things have in American society, with the wealthy.

I’ve come across several references* that suggest the same general idea: in the late 1800s, America’s social elite began taking vacations (often to the great camps of the Adirondacks and other luxurious estates in rustic camouflage). While they were vacating their urban estates (there’s that original sense), these vacations were justified as a way to rejuvenate mind and body and reconnect with nature. The wealthy could afford this, the masses could not. Although soon enough the middle class could — and did — start taking vacations.

In Working at Play, Cindy Aron explains this vacation phenomenon, as well as the odd nature of many vacations in that time period. The Puritan streak in the American psyche couldn’t bear the idea of leisure for leisure’s sake, for example, so vacations often had religious or self-improvement goals. Frankly, I think that’s still true for many of us (in my extended family there are clear factional lines between those who see vacations as times for pure undisturbed rest and those who cram each off-day with activities). It took several generations for the modern concept of the vacation to diffuse into society (and for most to gain access to regular vacations).

And if my very cursory analysis of some online data is any indication, it also took some time for the word to establish itself. Use of the word vacation in this sense started to take off in the mid 1880s. It gained ground quickly, but lagged well behind the equivalent sense of holiday for some time. It’s only around 1940 that vacation first overtakes holiday, and only since about 1970 that vacation has clearly pushed holiday aside.

Does it matter which word you use? Well, yes, of course. In the US, you’d say that you’re planning a vacation or on vacation. In most of the rest of the English speaking world, you’d go on holiday. If you use holiday this way in the US, there’s a very good chance you’ll be understood, but the use will be recognized as awkward (and will seem pretentious to many). Likewise, using vacation instead of holiday outside the US will almost certainly be understood — but you’ll stand out as a non-native speaker or writer. It’s best to choose the term based on your audience (and if your audience is truly global, while holiday might seem the more universal term, I’d recommend using whichever term you’re most comfortable with, to maintain honesty and authenticity in your work).

Whether you go on holidays or take vacations, I hope you enjoy them. I expect to return to more active posting before the end of the summer (although returning to serious work from serious leisure is never easy).

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*I’ve been rather unscholarly with this post: it’s not well-referenced. As noted, I’ve encountered published discussions on the rise of the modern use of vacation in several sources, usually related to Adirondack camps in the Victorian era and Gilded Age. But the only one I was able to locate and note is Aron. For audio of a brief interview with Aron, go here. Frequency speculations, as usual, are based on Google Books Ngrams. That’s a tremendous data source, but limited to published and scanned material, and the answers it gives are only as good as the questions asked.

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About thebettereditor

Chris holds a BA degree in history from the University of Virginia and a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) Degree in writing from the University of Southern Maine (Stonecoast). He has worked extensively with professional and semi-professional writers and enthusiastic amateurs for about 20 years. He has several years experience in scientific publishing, but has also worked in information technology, insurance, health care, and education (he taught writing at the university level for a number of years). Since 2011, he's also specialized in helping small business meet their writing and editing needs on a budget.
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