Vacuous Vacation or Summer Holiday

Marrying a man born and raised in the British Empire, who speaks the “authentic” English, expanded my vocabulary. While some words, like queue, made it into my daily speech, others, like bonnet for the hood of the car, never did.

But there is one British word that I have gladly adopted, and think is much more joyful and suitable than its American counterpart. I love the way that the British go on holiday rather than vacation. After all, vacation focuses on what you are leaving behind. You are vacating work or school or your daily routine. Holiday is full of mystique and charm, focusing on thrilling activities that will take the place of everyday life.

Holidays are distinct from “holy” days, set aside by religious or even civic duty. When Arthur Ransome titled one of his children’s books, Winter Holiday, he wasn’t talking of Christmas, but rather of what Americans might call winter break. Not surprisingly, as a winter holiday, it was not used for going to the dentist, watching TV, and sleeping late but instead was a period of adventure and excitement for the protagonists of his story. You might sleep away a break but who would so mistreat a holiday?

There is another dimension to this seemingly minor vocabulary difference. When you vacate or take a break from something, there is an implication that it is a burden you are happy to shrug off. In contrast to that, a holiday means that there is a fleeting (after all holidays can’t last forever) opportunity on the calendar. A subtle point, perhaps, but subtleties can have a big impact.

So, as students come to the end of their school year, I don’t want to wish them a happy vacation. Anyone with a few unencumbered days should have plans to execute, ideas to implement, and dreams to realize. If imaginations are too shriveled to think beyond the ordinary, I would suggest tossing the electronics and investing in copies of some classic British children’s literature like that of Richmal Crompton, Enid Blyton, E. Nesbit, and of course, Arthur Ransome. After all, how often do holidays come around?

My husband and I spent a few precious and rare hours this week surrounded by all our children (born to us, not children by marriage), water, and the outdoors. My brain has not clicked back into work mode, despite efforts to corral it. I hope you enjoy this Musing, originally published in 2009.

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