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Busman’s holiday

A recent report in a Bristol newspaper featured a singer who took time out from recording albums to write songs for children. She called this her busman’s holiday.

You are unlikely to have busman in your personal vocabulary, as it’s mostly journalistic headline shorthand. It dates from the 1840s for the driver or conductor of a horse-drawn London omnibus (the conductor was the second man of the crew, who rode inside to collect the fares, a post now almost unknown in Britain).

A busman’s holiday is free time a person spends in an activity that’s much like what he or she does for a living. So a carpenter who spends a weekend repairing a friend’s house or a teacher who works at summer school during the holidays is taking a busman’s holiday.

Having been at the heart of Obama’s two successful bids for the US presidency, Axelrod is probably the most accomplished American political operator enticed to take a busman’s holiday in Britain, but he is by no means the first.

Sunday Times, 20 Apr. 2014. David Axelrod had taken up a post as the Labour Party’s senor political strategist.

Busman’s holiday is originally British, dating from the end of the nineteenth century. It initially spread to other countries through reports of London affairs and then caught on locally. It appeared in the Sunday Times of Sydney, Australia, in May 1896 and the Auckland Star of New Zealand in October 1902. It reached North America in 1909. It’s now known throughout the English-speaking world.

Some writers on etymology have got into a mess trying to explain it.

A typical story appeared in John Ciardi’s A Browser’s Dictionary in 1981: “British drivers of horse-drawn omnibuses, becoming attached to their teams, were uneasy about turning them over to relief drivers who might abuse them. On their days off, therefore, the drivers regularly went to the stables to see that the horses were properly harnessed, and returned at night to see that they had not been abused”. A similar tale is told by William and Mary Morris in The Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins, except that they assert that the most caring drivers, should they have any reason to fear abuse would occur, would sit among the passengers to observe the relief driver’s behaviour. A related explanation was given in the Brownsville Daily Herald of Texas on 2 September 1909: “When a London omnibus driver takes a day off it is supposed that he spends it riding around on the top of a friend’s ‘bus, seeing how he does things.”

Other writers are justly scornful of such sentimental explanations. Anyone who has looked into the history of nineteenth-century London buses will know that their horses were no better cared for than any other working nags and that they were often sweated to death.

The most plausible explanation given by writers who seek to explain matters is that a popular day out among working-class Londoners in the late nineteenth century was to make an excursion by bus. A bus driver or conductor who went on such a trip was said to be taking a busman’s holiday.

However, the earliest examples point to its instead being humorous urban folklore, retold here in all seriousness by an actor:

I shall indeed take a holiday on the Continent off the stage, soon, probably but it will be a “Busman’s Holiday.” The bus-driver spends his “day off” in driving on a pal’s bus, on the box-seat by his pal’s side; and I know that night after night, all through my holiday, I shall be in and out of this hall and that theatre, never happy except when I am watching some theatrical piece or variety entertainment.

English Illustrated Magazine, 1893.

That story is paralleled by one from nearly three decades later:

Few stories of London origin are more familiar than that of the cabby who, regarding his day off as one of his indisputable rights, spent it each week in riding about the City with a fellow cabby in order to keep him company.

Punch, or the London Charivari, 14 July 1920. Punch, a humorous and satirical weekly that became a British institution, claimed to be quoting an unspecified Sunday newspaper and connected the story with busman’s holiday.

This surely confirms that a tale about pally cabbies was as common as the one about friendly busmen and equally likely to be a joke.

Americans of the period seem to have been mildly intrigued by the leisure activities of London busmen. An article from the London Chronicle was reprinted in a Kentucky newspaper:

Recently I came across a really happy omnibus conductor, who knew me by sight, and remarked that it had been a splendid day. He had almost a whole day off, and looked jolly. What had he done? Why, what he always does when on a day off! I had never really believed in the phrase “The busman’s holiday.” It’s true. For that man always gets on the top of another man’s bus and has a good long ride into the country and back. It cured him of insomnia, he said.

The Richmond Climax (Kentucky), 19 Nov. 1913.

We may conclude from all this that busman’s holiday was based on a Londoner’s joke, along the lines of “What does a busman do on his day off? He takes a bus ride with a pal, of course.” Over time, the joke was forgotten but the phrase survived, to become the target of much speculation about its genesis from etymologists separated in time and space from the environment in which it was created.

A version known in American English is postman’s holiday, this being presumably a long walk that a person takes on his day off. It’s wordplay on the original and is known from the period in which postman, rather than today's mailman or letter carrier, was common:

Last night on the subway I was more than a little interested to notice a man in a guard’s uniform, very common in appearance and not at all unusual in manner, off-duty (presumably taking a postman’s holiday by riding on the cars!), reading from a book of Horace’s Odes in the original.

Sioux City Journal (Indiana), 21 Mar. 1928. Busman’s holiday would have fitted better; we may guess the writer didn’t know it.

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Page created 17 May 2014