English language Etymology Punctuation Spelling Usage

Something for the weekend?

Q: Before 1945, there was, in effect, no “weekend.” My father worked Saturday and half Sunday up to the late ’40s. Also, my memory is of a hyphenated “week-end.” It must have changed over the late ’50s and early ’60s.

A: The two-day weekend break (three or more days on holidays) may be relatively new, but the word “weekend” isn’t. It dates back to the 17th century.

As for that hyphen, “weekend” evolved like most compound words: they usually begin life as two separate words, are later hyphenated, and finally become one solid word, though this process can be a bit messy.

We checked nine standard dictionaries in the US and the UK, and all of them now list “weekend” without the hyphen.

However, the Oxford English Dictionary still hyphenates the word in its main entry (“week-end”), though the term is hyphen-free in all OED citations from the 1970s onward.

What is a “weekend”? Well, some dictionaries consider it Saturday and Sunday, others include Friday night, and still others describe it as the period between the end of one workweek and the start of another. (A “long weekend” is one extended by adjacent days.)

When the word entered English nearly 400 years ago, it simply meant the end of the week—at least, that’s the apparent sense in the OED’s earliest citation, a 1638 quotation reproduced in the Victoria County History of Yorkshire:

“The greatest weight of the said exaction will fall upon very poor people … who making every week a coarse kersey and being compelled to sell the same at the week end … are nevertheless constrained to yield one half penny apiece.” (Kersey is a heavy wool or wool and cotton fabric.)

In the next OED citation, from The Journal of the Rev. William Bagshaw Stevens (1793), the author seems to be using the word “weekend” in the sense of a period of leisure between two workweeks.

In a journal entry, Stevens, headmaster of the Repton School in Derbyshire, notes his plans to visit a friend, the Rev. John D. Dewe, a master at the Appleby School:

“Wrote to Dewe that I would put on my seven league boots next weekend and stretch my course to Appleby.”

(The excerpt comes from a version of the journal edited by Georgina Galbraith and published in 1965. The editing may account for this early appearance of “weekend” as a solid word.)

The next two OED citations, from the 19th century, are more specific about the meaning of the term.

Here’s an example from the Food Journal (1870): “ ‘Week-end,’ that is from Saturday until Monday,—it may be a later day in the week if the money and credit hold out,—is the season of dissipation.”

The journal Notes and Queries printed this passage in 1879: “In Staffordshire, if a person leaves home at the end of his week’s work on the Saturday afternoon to spend the evening of Saturday and the following Sunday with friends at a distance, he is said to be spending his week-end at So-and-so.”

But the fun begins on Friday in this example from Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s novel The Day Will Come (1889):

“Theodore and his friend betook themselves to Cheriton Chase on the following Friday, for that kind of visit which north country people describe as ‘a week end’.”

As we’ve said, none of the OED citations for “weekend” since the 1970s have hyphens. Here are a few examples, with “weekend” used attributively—that is, as an adjective:

“Lieutenant Mark Phillips, on weekend leave from Germany, went hunting on Saturday with Princess Anne.” (From the Guardian, 1973.)

“A weekend bag packed with scent, toothbrush and so forth.” (From Julia O’Faolain’s novel The Obedient Wife, 1982.)

“Humphrey Brooke was only a weekend gardener until … he decided to retire.” (From Harper’s and Queen, 1974.)

“Weekending French families setting out in their saloons for the countryside.” (From Anthony Grey’s novel Some Put Their Trust in Chariots, 1973.)

In Western countries, the week is typically divided into a workweek of Monday through Friday, and a weekend of Saturday and Sunday.

However, the usual workweek is often longer in other parts of the world. And the weekend can fall on other days, depending on the predominant religion in the area.

We won’t get into a detailed history of the two-day weekend, except to note that Henry Ford began giving his auto workers Saturday and Sunday off in 1926, the year the American Federation of Labor set a five-day, 40-hour week as one of its goals.

By the summer of 1929, according to a report by CQ Researcher, from one-half to three-quarters of a million American wage earners had a five-day week.

We should note, though, that many Americans don’t have a traditional workweek. When we were journalists, for example, we often worked on Saturday and Sunday, and had our days off on weekdays.

We’ll close this with a usage that was new to us. The phrase “something for the weekend” is a British euphemism for a condom (and sometimes for another sexual aid, like an aphrodisiac).

The OED explains the origins of this colloquialism: “Traditionally, as part of a question that barbers were said to have put to their customers.”

According to a 1987 citation in the Sunday Times of London, “Barbers would ask our fathers: ‘Anything for the weekend, sir?’ ”

This would seem to give a whole new meaning to the question, “How was your weekend?”

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