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shameless pleading

Holiday

I’ve missed you, Spot.

Dear Word Detective:  Painters and others interested in the coating of surfaces use the term “holiday” to describe a “missed spot.” What is the origin of the term? — John Weiss.

That’s a new one on me. Incidentally, this seems a good time to announce that I have discovered what I believe, based on extensive research, to be the most annoying phrase in the English language. Yes, I know most people would regard my quest for such a linguistic irritant as strange and anti-social, but no one who knows me well will be very surprised. Anyway, the phrase is “You missed a spot.” Anyone cleaning anything, painting anything, paving anything (road crews are especially grateful when I slow down to let them know), or doing just about anything that has a beginning and an end, always secretly appreciates hearing that they’re further from the end than they had thought. It’s usually not true, of course, but, since folks almost always stop to check, I like to think I’m doing my part to help them ensure the integrity of their work product. I just wish they wouldn’t throw things at me.

There’s an interesting twist in the early history of “holiday,” and it’s a distinction we still sometimes make in how we use the word. Our modern “holiday” comes from the Old English “haligdaeg,” which simply combined “halig” (“holy”) and “daeg” (“day”) into one word. But “haligdaeg” was used mean both “a consecrated day or religious festival” and “a day on which ordinary activities and work are suspended; a day of festivities,” i.e., a largely secular day off. To avoid confusion, “haligdaeg” was used to mean the secular occasions and “halig daeg,” two words, signified the religious “holy days.” This distinction has carried over into modern English, where we have used, since about the 16th century, “holiday” in a broad sense but “holy day” in only a religious sense.

“Holiday” went on, of course, to acquire a wide variety of more general and figurative meanings, ranging from simply “a break from routine” to the jocular use of the word to mean “imprisonment” (“A sentence of a month or two … a little ‘holiday’ with food and shelter and warmth,” 1901). One of the notable British English uses of the word that strikes many Americans as odd is the use of “holiday” to mean what we would call a “vacation” (“Blair spent one summer holidays with his mother Lady Mary, at Spa,” 1825).

The use of “holiday” to mean “a missed spot” appears to be that rarity in English etymology, a word or phrase that actually has a nautical origin. The original use of “holiday” in the “missed a spot” sense, back in the 18th century, was in reference to crew members painting the decks of a ship or “paying” (sealing seams with tar or pitch) its hull. “Paying” (from the Middle French “poier,” to smear with pitch) in particular was an arduous, intensely unpleasant task, so even a small missed spot could be, sardonically, considered a “holiday” (“A holiday is any part of a ship’s bottom, left uncovered in paying it,” Grose, Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, 1785).

This use was later generalized to cover a missed spot in any task, including daily household chores (“Holidays: parts left untouched in dusting. ‘Don’t leave any holidays.’” Jago, Dialect of Cornwall, 1882). Of course, if you leave enough “holidays” in the wake of your  assigned task, whether it’s dusting, accounting or paving, you might soon find oneself on a permanent “holiday.” So I’m actually doing folks a favor by pointing out the spots they’ve missed, right?

5 comments to Holiday

  • Charlie Nunzio

    Comment on “Holiday” — My engineering job, included working with a machinist to design and build test fixtures made from aluminum alloy plate. Sometimes, due to an error in my design drawing or a slip my the machinist, a hole was drilled in the wrong location. The machinist could fill in such mistakes with an aluminum weld. He called this cosmetic fix “Hollywooding.” So if a missed spot is a “holiday,” perhaps it can be fixed by “Hollywooding.”

  • The sardonic meaning of “holiday” eludes me, of all people, generally regarded as a virtuoso of sarcasm. Does the nautical “holiday” for a missed spot mean that the person caulking the seam was not working when he should have been (if only momentarily)?

  • This is interesting. I painted for a living in the last century (but only for 22 years). The first time I ever heard the term “holiday,” referring to my poor workmanship, I knew exactly what was meant. Of course, that my boss was pointing at it helped. It never occurred to me, though, to find out the source of a painter’s “holiday.” Thank you–now that I don’t really need to know it anymore.

  • John Germaine

    I well remember the neighborhood children referring to missed spots in mowing the yard as “holidays”, I thought because one took a short holiday from the task.

  • Betsy Carlson

    My great-grandfather from Sweden taught my father to paint and pass on the terminology called holidays…not a good thing to do.

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