Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Happy holidays

It was my wife's turn to choose a DVD at the local Brickbuster the other night. She hired The Holiday. It was a chick flick: some funny moments but otherwise rubbish. As expected.

When it ended, my wife brought up the fact that while we in Australia and Britain use the expression "going on holiday," those on the other side of the Pacific/Atlantic in the USA use the expression "going on vacation". We wondered if, in the US, the movie might have been called The Vacation. It isn't.

But etymologically, the nuances of difference between the words holiday and vacation are interesting.

Holiday is a good old English word from the 14th century. It's so old it used to be spelled with that letter where an o and an e were joined together. It originally and fairly obviously meant "holy day" but came to mean "a day of festivity or recreation on which no work is done," a meaning that has been with us (or probably our ancestors) since the 16th century.

In the US, the term still refers to the day or days when people don't go to work. "What are you doing for the holiday?" The equivalent of this meaning in Australia is public holiday and the English refer to their bank holidays as an approximate translation.

Today, when we take a holiday or go on a holiday or, in the plural, go on holidays, we're usually talking about going somewhere. "I'm going on holidays in Europe," one might say. And one would have a lovely time; it's beautiful this time of year.

But whereas we use the term holiday to refer to where we're going, the term vacation, from vacate and the same latin root that gave us vacancy and vacant, refers not to the day itself or where you're going but where you're leaving.

When you take a vacation, you vacate your premises. (When your brain takes a vacation you might vacate your premisses. Ha ha ha, aren't I witty!) Your home becomes vacant and you might choose a place to stay that has a vacancy.

A holiday house, perhaps.

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