Garden Leave

It’s where he grows his apprehension.

Dear Word Detective: Today a British colleague of mine mentioned that he was on “garden leave.” Huh? Wikipedia to the rescue, for the meaning. But where the heck did it come from? I understand that when a Brit says “garden,” he often means “yard,” but I still don’t get it.  — Steve Ford.

They’re doing it on purpose, you know. It’s been going on since just after the American Revolution. Frustrated at having lost to a bunch of hicks who couldn’t even muster proper uniforms, the British decided to embark on a stealth attack on their former colonists’ sanity by inventing and promulgating bizarre words and phrases. So today they call trucks “lorries,” the   trunk of a car “the boot,” dresses “frocks” and sweaters “jumpers,” stoves “cookers,” and private schools “public schools” (huh?). And you’re right about “garden.” Brits use it to mean “yard,” especially the back yard of a row house. It used to really throw me to read limey authors going on about the “little shed at the bottom of the garden” where they write. I always imagined an underground bunker with turnips, but it turns out they mean a hut at the far end of their back yard.

Interestingly, the use of “garden” to mean simply “yard” is nowhere to be found in the Oxford English Dictionary definition of the word, though I suppose their basic definition of “an enclosed piece of ground devoted to the cultivation of flowers, fruit, or vegetables” could be considered sufficiently vague as to cover it. There’s also a close family tie between “garden” and “yard.” “Garden” first popped up in English around 1300, borrowed from the Old Northern French “gardin,” which was based on the same Germanic root that gave us “yard.” “Garden” is often used in the plural to mean landscaped public grounds used for recreation, as in “botanical gardens” and “zoological gardens.”

“Garden” has, not surprisingly, produced a variety of idioms and phrases ranging from the literal (“garden rake,” etc.) to the intriguingly metaphorical. We speak of “leading someone up the garden path,” for instance, meaning “to entice, to mislead or deceive,” the reference being that of someone offering a pleasant walk in an ornamental garden while secretly harboring nefarious plans. “Garden” has become a slang synonym for “common or ordinary,” especially in the phrase “garden variety,” probably originally in reference to breeds of plant found in an ordinary garden as opposed to anything more exotic (“I have — to make use of a common or garden expression — been ‘rushed’ in this matter,” 1897). And “to cultivate [or “tend”] one’s own garden” has, since the 18th century, meant to concentrate on one’s own affairs (and mind one’s own business).

“Gardening leave” (or “garden leave”) is a fairly recent British term, first appearing in print in the mid-1980s (1990 for “garden leave”). The Oxford English Dictionary defines “gardening leave” as a euphemism meaning “suspension from work on full pay for the duration of a notice period, typically to prevent an employee from having any further influence on the organization or from acting to benefit a competitor before leaving.” The “notice period” mentioned there is the time between tendering one’s resignation (or being fired) and when the action actually takes effect. Apparently Britain has laws governing how long this period must be (from one week to one week per year of employment if you’re being canned). “Garden leave” is the practice of removing the soon-to-be-ex-employee from work duties so he or she will not be able to transfer current business information to a new employer (or to actually sabotage the current employer for the benefit of one’s new gig). There’s really no specific US equivalent for the term “gardening leave,” but similar situations would probably fall under the umbrella euphemism “administrative leave.”

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