What are you going to take: A vacay? A staycation? A fakation? A brocation? Or something else?
Late July and early August are the height of vacation season in the United States. Highways are jammed, pools are packed, and campgrounds at capacity. With that in mind, let’s talk about the word “vacation” and other ways to talk about taking time off.
The Word 'Vacation' First Appears in Chaucer
The word “vacation” comes from the Latin word “vacāt,” which is the participial stem of the verb “vacāre,” meaning to be empty or free. Other words that come from the same root are “vacant” and “vacancy,” as well as the obsolete words “vacantry,” meaning idleness, and “vacatur,” meaning an annulment.
Although people have surely been taking breaks since the beginning of time, the word “vacation” doesn’t show up in print until 1386, in Geoffrey Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales.” In his poem, the Wife of Bath describes how one of her husbands had a book about “wikked wyves.” The book tells about the most notorious wives in history, including Eve, Delilah, and Clytemnestra. The husband spends all his free time — his “leyser and vacacioun” — reading the book aloud to her, as a form of torment.
(By the way, don’t worry about the Wife of Bath. She winds up ripping some of the pages out of her husband’s book, hitting him in the face, and convincing him to give her all of his estate.)
Vacation, Staycation, and Fakation
On another topic. I’ve talked before about our seemingly endless appetite for creating “portmanteaus” — words that mash together two parts of other words to make something new. Examples are “spork,” which combines “spoon” and “fork,” and “smog,” a combination of “smoke” and “fog.”
Well, people have also come up with some fun portmanteaus related to vacations. There’s “staycation,” time off when you don’t travel, but stay at home—to relax, do projects around the house, or enjoy the sites in your own hometown. There’s “fakation,” a vacation you contrive to take by falsely calling in sick to work. There are even “brocations” and “mancations,” guys-only getaways where you get to do … whatever it is guys do when they get together.
Then, of course, there’s “glamping.” This un-musical word is a mashup of “glamorous” and “camping.” It describes a luxurious outing very different from what you may have done as a Boy Scout or Girl Scout. Think of relaxing in a safari-size tent built on a wooden platform, sleeping in a four-poster bed with linen sheets, checking your phone via wifi, and sitting down to a gourmet meal provided by a personal chef. That is glamorous camping indeed.
Hey, Let’s Vacay!
There’s also a shortened word for vacation—“vacay”—that’s now an official entry in the Oxford English Dictionary. If that upsets you, remember that dictionaries don’t exist to validate new words. Rather, they document new words that are being consistently used over an extended period of time.
That said, “vacay” is definitely a colloquial term. It’s fine in conversation and in writing that has a casual tone. But leave it out in your formal writing.
Another super-short way of referring to time off is “R&R,” with an ampersand between the two Rs. This initialism (not acronym) is military shorthand for “rest and recuperation” or “rest and relaxation.”
Out of Pocket, Out of Commission, and on Holiday
There’s another expression for being out of town or unavailable that we hear a lot — at least in the business world. It’s being “out of pocket.” This phrase sounds like newfangled jargon, but it actually appeared as early as 1908, in a short story by American author O. Henry.
There’s a similar phrase, “out of commission,” that suggests that someone is not available, no longer around, or taking an extended break. This expression alludes to a ship that’s been taken out of operation for repairs, or held in reserve indefinitely.
Finally, there’s the way British folk refer to their vacations. They talk about being “on holiday.” And fancy folk in general? They talk about “weekending” at different vacation spots.
Once again, that’s a phrase that sounds like modern jargon but was actually in use in the early 1900s. I guess some things never change — like our habit of turning nouns into verbs.
Ammer, Christine. Out of commission. American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, 2nd ed. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013.
Oxford English Dictionary, online edition. Oxford University Press. Out of pocket, weekend, vacay, vacation (subscription required, accessed July 26, 2019).
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