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Holiday or vacation?

Written by
Roshan McArthur
March 24, 2020

At BoutiqueHomes, ‘holiday homes’ and ‘vacation rentals’ are part of our vocabulary. We talk about them on a daily basis. They are, after all, what we do. The other day in the office, we had an interesting conversation about how these terms mean different things to different people – depending on where in the world you’re from.

For example, Americans looking to travel might search for a ‘vacation rentals’ while Brits will google ‘holiday lettings’. Being the curious nomads that we are, we decided to find out why this is.

Let’s start with holiday (always a good idea, in our opinion). The word itself comes from the Old English word hāligdæg, from hālig holy + dæg day. Originally (around 1200), it referred only to religious days, but it has since shifted into more general use.

Look up the definition of holiday in an American dictionary (Merriam-Webster), and it’s “a special day of celebration: a day when most people do not have to work”. Pretty close to the original meaning. Look it up an Oxford dictionary, and you’ll find it’s “an extended period of leisure and recreation, especially one spent away from home or in traveling”. Quite different.

Now, the word vacation comes from the Latin verb vacare meaning “to be empty, free, or at leisure”. Look up Merriam-Webster, and you’ll find the American definition of vacation almost matches the British definition of holiday: “a period of time that a person spends away from home, school, or business usually in order to relax or travel”. In the Oxford dictionary, a vacation is “a fixed holiday period between terms in universities and law courts”. Time off for professors and judges, but hardly anyone else.

Australians and New Zealanders follow the British lead, while Canadians follow the Americans. So why does half the English-speaking world say holiday and the other half vacation?

A Yahoo Answers respondent going by the name mr_fartson answers, “Don’t ask me why; it’s just language convention.” Another says, “Who cares, as long as you get time off!”

Well, maybe so, but we like to dig a little deeper.

If you look at dates, there is some insight. The usage seems to have diverged in the middle of the 19th century, and the first American citation for vacation as an extended break was in 1878.

We know two things. One, settlers brought the word vacation with them from Britain, where it was an official break taken by schools and law courts, or a luxurious pastime for the upper classes (who could afford to ‘vacate’ their homes). And two, holidays or vacations, or whatever we choose to call them, are a recent invention. In the early days of the United States, taking breaks was frowned upon, based on the Puritan values that crossed the Atlantic with the settlers.

However, around 1878, the idea of taking a restorative break became fashionable. So, it seems, in a pre-internet world where we couldn’t compare usage on social media, Americans claimed the word vacation (the bureaucratic or legal term) and ran with it. The Brits chose holiday (the religious term).

Like the potato chip, the concept of time off developed separately on different continents. (The crisp fried potato slice, or chip, developed in the US in 1824. The first fish-and-chip shop opened in London in the 1860s.)

We say, eat both. And take vacations and holidays. In fact, take a vacation in London, take a holiday in New York. Just make sure you take them. And if it all gets a bit too confusing, help yourself to another margarita, put your feet up, and enjoy the view.

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