(We’re repeating this post for New Year’s Day. It originally ran on Dec. 15, 2011.)
Q: Happy holidays! Apropos of the holiday season, when did “holiday” become a word and when did it lose its holiness? I assume it was originally “holy day,” but I’ve never looked into it.
A: The word “holiday” was first recorded in English around the year 950, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, but it looked a lot different back then.
In Old English, it was written haligdæg or hali-dægh (literally “holy day’). And later, in Middle English, the first vowel was also an “a”: halidei, halidai , halliday, haliday, etc.
A bit later in the Middle English period (12th to 15th centuries) the “a” became an “o,” and eventually the usual forms of the word became “holy day,” “holy-day,” or “holiday” (a spelling first recorded in 1460).
The different forms of the word—that is, whether it was written as one word or two—had something to do with its different meanings.
Originally, the word meant a consecrated day or a religious festival. But in the 1400s, it acquired another, more secular meaning.
The OED defines this sense of the word as “a day on which ordinary occupations (of an individual or a community) are suspended; a day of exemption or cessation from work; a day of festivity, recreation, or amusement.”
That’s how the single word “holiday” came to include the secular side of life and became identified with vacations. But the two–word versions (“holy day,” “holy-day”) retained the original meaning—a day set aside for religious observance.
Today we still recognize these different senses and spellings.
Now here’s an aside. In the Middle English period, people sometimes observed holy days by eating a large flatfish called butte. Thus this fish became known as “halibut” (“hali” for holy and “but” for flatfish).
And happy holidays to you!