They’re Vacations, Not Holidays

Happy August! We find ourselves deep in summer trip territory with this turning of the calendar page. Ah, but what do we call those journeys?

If you’re American, they’re vacations, and you don’t necessarily get them very often. There is no national (federal) law requiring any paid time off to be granted to employees for vacation purposes; this falls under the benefits we look for when we job hunt, along with a raft of other things.

If you’re British, your summer trip is a holiday, and you’re guaranteed the paid time off, at least, by the law: every worker gets four weeks’ paid time off every year.

If you’re American, a holiday comes from the words Holy Day, so our holidays come from Holy Days: Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving, Halloween, American Independence Day – what, you don’t think patriotism in America is a religion? Clearly you’ve not spent long enough in that culture. We’ve tacked on some more, of course: Presidents’ Day, Dr Martin Luther King Jr Day, Mardi Gras, Memorial Day, Labor Day, and New Year’s Day.

If you’re English or Welsh, days like those are called bank holidays, and aside from a scant few (namely, Christmas, Boxing Day, Good Friday, and Easter Monday), are just arbitrary Mondays throughout the year that create 3-day weekends. (There are one or two more meaningful bank holidays for the Scottish and Northern Irish.) The same ideas apply for bank holidays as for federal holidays as regards time off – it’s not guaranteed you’ll get those days off, that’s mostly for office workers, etc. Much of the retail and leisure sector operates as normal, or even at fever pitch, on those days, so obviously those workers don’t get the time off. In years past in the UK, they used to get some sort of compensation – double pay or paid time off later – but those rules have gone now, so they’re just treated the same as any other day on the calendar. In the US, some employers will pay 1.5x the regular hourly rate, but that’s entirely voluntary, and infrequent.

So if you’re British, you “go on your holidays” or you “go on holiday” or you’re “off on your jollies.” Americans will “go on vacation” or … other things that escape me right now. (My fellow Americans, chime in in the comments!)

If you’re British, and you’re trying to make a date with a friend but look at your diary and see that you’re going to be on your jollies some 100 miles distant that week, you’re away. If you’re American, you look at your calendar, phone, or planner, see the same thing, and tell them you’ll be out of town.

Another aspect of breaks is the staycation. In the US, this generally means you have time off work/school/etc, but stay in your house. Perhaps you arrange a series of day trips, or perhaps you just sleep in and enjoy not having to put on your uniform each day, or whatever. In the UK, because vacations have been for some years decidedly things that involve going abroad, when the term came across from the US, they adapted it to mean staying in the country. I give you the chart from the Office for National Statistics showing this – this is the federal government’s statistics arm:


(GB here means Great Britain: England, Wales, and Scotland.)

This brings me nicely to another point about vacations: because the UK is so small (remember, it’s only the size of Louisiana and Arkansas put together), and because there are many other countries nearby, it’s really common for people to go abroad at least sometimes – even school trips will sometimes go abroad. It really breaks my English friends’ brains when they realize that most Americans go through their whole lives without once going abroad … but then, most of them don’t ever realize just how BIG the US is, so you can have all manner of vacations and experience many different cultures without ever leaving the country. I try to tell them: it’s over twice the size of the EU; it doesn’t really sink in. Indeed, what Chris and I began to suspect on our US road trip last year was that for the most part, it doesn’t really register even to those living there just how vast the country is, until you really go out and explore it.

My word choices these days are very conscious, deliberate things – given choices, I’m having a field day reducing ambiguity, which always seems to me the best goal to have in communication (probably has something to do with that math degree). So no matter what passports I hold, they’ll always be vacations; holidays are days of meaning, and perhaps even holy days. And I really don’t like this word staycation, regardless of how it’s used, so it’ll either be “time off” or “vacation” or some other word or phrase that’s served us so well for so many years. Oh, and a diary is always a private record for my eyes only, not a schedule of events – that’s a calendar (which could be on my phone or in a planner). I think a UK journal is a US diary, but I’m not sure; a journal will always be to me a less personal record, such as a lab journal, or the journal of water outages I started keeping when we had a spate of those: logs meant to share.

Isn’t language funny?

2 thoughts on “They’re Vacations, Not Holidays

  1. Language is truly very funny at times. I’ve noticed, as you probably have too, different parts of the U.S. have different words for the same thing, for example Coke is called pop up north and soda down south. I’ve always found that is what makes moving around so interesting, you get to learn and experience such differences much better than just reading about them.

    Then there is the word creation for something that has been around for a long time. In my younger days, usually I did not have funds available to set aside for an annual vacation so we would do day trips while we remained at home. I still do that a lot because with all the work we’ve done on our home and my workshop I want to spend time there. So I thought it funny a few years ago when they started calling such times a staycation.

    • Indeed, the pop vs coke vs soda debate is a naunced one. Behold:

      (From here; county by county breakdown of data available here.)

      The same things happen here with what to call things – with much smaller distances involved. Tis why I’m always careful to specify that my knowledge is really limited to my local area!

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