Q&A: Holiday vs vacation

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we're having holiday vibes…

Q: Hi AWC, I’m in holiday mode – and with so many people opting to say “Happy Holidays” at this time of year, can we talk about the origin of that word?

A: What a great idea!

Q: I’m assuming it comes from “holy day”, yeah?

A: That’s right – originally it was used only for religious observances or the Sabbath and until the 1500s it was spelt “haliday”. So all those claiming it somehow loses the religious tone of “Christmas” to say “happy holidays” (holy day) are wrong!

Q: So when did “holiday” start meaning a break from working?

A: Quite early on – during the 14th century.

Q: And what about going on a holiday – travelling somewhere else?

A: This didn’t really come along until the 19th century. 

Q: That seems quite late.

A: Well, the concept of leisure travel wasn’t really a thing until then. The words “tourist” and “tourism” didn’t arrive until the late 1700s or early 1800s.

Q: Fascinating!

A: And going on “holiday” was only something the British used, while America opted to use the word “vacation” for this instead.

Q: So when did people begin saying “happy holidays”?

A: The British started using it during the mid-1800s, but specifically in reference to going on summer holidays from school. It wasn’t until 1937 that it started being used in reference to Christmas – this happened first in America.

Q: That’s a very precise date.

A: It is, because it was first used in Christmas advertising that year by Camel Cigarettes. They were a prolific advertiser during this time, and introduced America to the idea of this time of year being known as “the holidays”. You can see the original ad here

Q: Wow. To think that we owe this to cigarettes.

A: Jolly Old Saint Nicotine…

Q: What about the verb “holiday” – as in “I decided to holiday in Greece, but didn’t see John Travolta or Olivia Newton John once”?
A: Haha. Using “holiday” as a verb is fairly recent – first used in the 1860s according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary. “To vacation” emerged at the same time.

Q: Ah right, so tell me more about Americans who prefer to go on “vacation”. How old is that word?

A: The word itself is pretty old – first turning up in English in the late 14th century, from the idea of being “vacant” from obligations or free from some kind of occupation.

Q: Wait, did it not evolve from “vacate”?

A: Actually no – it was the other way around. “Vacation” came first and the verb “vacate” didn’t arrive until the 1600s.

Q: And when did it take on the leisure holiday meaning?

A: Again, not until the mid-1800s.

Q: And a “staycation”?

A: While Merriam-Webster has found a one-off occurrence of it being used way back in 1944, the idea of taking a vacation at home or nearby has only been known widely as a “staycation” since 2005.

Q: Hmmmm… I think we’ve all staycationed quite enough in the past few years.

A: Indeed!

Q: So, to recap, the “holidays” in Britain are any leisure trip or extended break such as summer etc. But in America, while they might use it for special events (i.e. July 4th holiday), they typically use “vacation” instead, with the generic term “holidays” reserved solely for Christmas/New Year’s. 

A: That’s right! And all thanks to cigarette advertising.

Q: Well, before we vacate this discussion for the final time this year, there’s just one thing left to say…

A: Happy Holidays!

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