It’s that time of year again: the sun is shining, temperatures are rising and the thought of spending another sweltering day at your desk feels like torture. It’s time for a well-deserved vacation! Or is it holidays? Well that depends on where you’re from. Americans go “on vacation” or “vacay”, while Brits, Canadians and Australians go “on holiday” or “hols”.

What is the difference between these two words? The word vacation comes from the Latin word vacationem (nominative vacatio), which means “leisure, freedom, exemption, a being free from duty, immunity earned by service” and is the noun of state from the past participle stem vacare, which means “to be empty, free, or at leisure”.

Two vacationers letting off steam in Yosemite National Park around 1902 Image: www.nytimes.com
Two vacationers letting off steam in Yosemite National Park around 1902

It has been used since the late 14th century to mean the freedom from obligations, leisure or release from some activity. Holiday, on the other hand, dates back to the 1500s, and earlier, haliday (circa 1200), which stems from Old English haligdæg “holy day; Sabbath”.

So when did these words start being used to describe taking a few weeks (or days) off of work to relax and recharge? The usage of the word holiday began to shift in the 16th century, and it was first used as a verb meaning “to pass the holidays” or “to spend time on holiday” in the late 1860s. Not long after, in 1878, “vacation” was first attested as the U.S. alternative to the British term “holiday”. So why did these two terms enter into common usage at this time?

The reason is that, before the 16th century, people didn’t go on holiday. In Europe at this time there were religious holidays when people were not allowed to work, but otherwise the concept of travel as a leisure activity did not exist. Starting in the 16th century and continuing into the 17th, travel for pleasure became more common among the upper classes: young men would travel around Europe after completing their studies, which was known as “The Grand Tour”. Over time, and partly as a result of the Industrial Revolution, travel and leisure began to trickle down to the middle classes, who started to receive paid time off in the late 19th century, which allowed them to start taking holidays.

In the United States, vacation and leisure travel were originally something for elites, many of whom would travel to spas or to the seashore for their health. The idea of vacationing only began to reach the middle class after the end of the Civil War. The changing nature of work, coupled with the growth of the railroads in the US led to a cultural shift in which vacations began to take on the form that we are familiar with today. Now, in 2015, tourism numbers are booming, travel has become cheaper and more accessible than ever before, and the European Union declared in 2010 that vacationing is a basic human right. In the stifling, humid days of late July, as we sit at our desks translating tempting hotel brochures and proofreading flyers that promise to transport us to far-away places, I think we can all agree that we’re grateful that vacation exists, no matter what you may call it.

English team

Image: Silly Vacation Photos, The New York Times