Hail the Holidays! image

Hail the Holidays!

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Today is my last day in the office before taking a couple of weeks off on holiday (that’s ‘vacation’ to our American readers!). So the past couple of days has been that normal just-before-holiday experience of both manically trying to tidy up everything that needs to be done before going away, and a growing feeling of ennui as getting my teeth into anything substantial seems pointless.

Actually, the different etymologies of the British ‘holiday’ and American ‘vacation’ is an interesting one. Very often British English has an affected French styling to it – for example by using ‘-s’ where the Americans use a more honest and appropriate ‘-z’. Or ‘-re’ instead of ‘-er’, and ‘-ise’ rather than ‘-ize’. (Although, interestingly, the Oxford English Dictionary itself prefers the ‘American’ spelling in this case: “[T]he suffix…, whatever the element to which it is added, is in its origin the Greek -ιζειν, Latin -izāre; and, as the pronunciation is also with z, there is no reason why in English the special French spelling in -iser should be followed, in opposition to that which is at once etymological and phonetic.”)
 
So, generally I prefer American English spellings to British-French ones. But I never talk about going on vacation – so back to the etymology of those words…
 
Vacation is (ironically) of French origin, and means “freedom or release.” It comes from the word vacare, “be empty, free, or at leisure.” Holiday, fairly obviously, comes from the words “holy” and “day” meaning both “religious festival” and “day of recreation.” Both vacation and holiday came to have their present meanings by the end of the 19th century.
 
Which word, then (and here we are coming to the nub!), is the preferable term?
 
Clearly, here it is the British usage that triumphs! The etymology of vacation speaks of being released from something that is negative, and entering a period of unfocussed dissipation. By contrast, holiday, has a more positive tone about it, as it sits more naturally alongside the biblical concept of Sabbath.
 
Sabbath does not regard work as evil. Work is not something to be set free from, but is to be seen as God’s plan and good gift to us. Yet the Sabbath also clearly dethrones the god of work, as it does not allow work to become our ultimate master. Sabbath is meant to define work. The Sabbath is also focused, rather than dissolute – it is concerned with worship and family and re-creation. Sabbath is a time not to be “empty” but to be refilled!
 
So, as I go away on holiday (to France, with its crazy spellings!) I go hoping for a true Sabbath – a time to reconnect and re-create, with my family, and with my creator. I expect to be filled, and not just with cheese and wine! And I hope that you too, whatever your plans this summer, manage to have some holiday, and not just a mere vacation.

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