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What is the difference, if any, between these two words?

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I think there is a difference in usage among countries. I know that many (native German-speaking) Swiss where I used to work would say they are going "on holiday" for several weeks. I never heard that expression from Americans. –  JeffSahol Jun 23 '11 at 11:50
    
My university says 'vacation' when we're off, when they mean 'holiday'. But that's just silly. –  Larry Jan 12 at 19:58
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5 Answers

up vote 9 down vote accepted

Yes, while they can mean the same thing, vacation is, also, a time when one decides to have a holiday, while holiday is the time when one does not decide, but when it is decided on some higher level (national, religious, organizational, etc).

Etymology might be enough to see all the peculiarities:

vacation
late 14c., "freedom or release" (from some activity or occupation), from O.Fr. vacation, from L. vacationem (nom. vacatio) "leisure, a being free from duty," from vacare "be empty, free, or at leisure" (see vain). Meaning "formal suspension of activity" (in ref. to schools, courts, etc.) is recorded from mid-15c. As the U.S. equivalent of what in Britain is called a holiday, it is attested from 1878.

holiday
1500s, earlier haliday (c.1200), from O.E. haligdæg "holy day; Sabbath," from halig "holy" (see holy) + dæg "day" (see day); in 14c. meaning both "religious festival" and "day of recreation," but pronunciation and sense diverged 16c. As a verb meaning "to pass the holidays" by 1869.

EDIT: According to etymology and dictionaries: Chiefly British holidays is a period of cessation from work or one of recreation; vacation.

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I'll buy that. I never heard anyone speak of bank vacations. –  FumbleFingers Jun 23 '11 at 8:00
    
I do, however, hear people (mostly from the US) speak of their Christmas vacation. But that's a quibble; this answer nicely points up the area where the two terms aren't synonymous. –  user1579 Jun 23 '11 at 12:27
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@Rhodri, the "Christmas vacation" (e.g. from school) might last a couple weeks, of which one day is the actual holiday of Christmas. –  Monica Cellio Jun 23 '11 at 13:04
    
"Holidays" (plural) in US English will almost always mean Christmas / New Year's time period. I presume since the other holidays only come singly. –  smackfu Jun 23 '11 at 22:03
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In the UK "going on holiday" means taking time off, what Americans call "going on vacation". An actual national/religious holiday is not required.

When Americans say "holiday" we mean a specific designated holiday, which we might or might not actually commemorate. (For example, most of us don't do anything special for Labor Day, but it's a holiday and a day off from work/school nonetheless.

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To follow on, Americans would never say "going on holiday", even if it was a specific designated holiday. You would "go away for the holiday". –  smackfu Jun 23 '11 at 22:01
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Briefly, a "vacation" is one that you plan. A "holiday" is one that is planned by government, tradition etc. e.g. School holiday, public holiday.

For example, you take a "vacation" when you are free, i.e. during a holiday (or when you are out of work)

You have a holiday when there is already one.

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On this side of the Atlantic, the word vacation is almost never used. They're both holidays. –  TRiG Jun 23 '11 at 12:33
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NB the usage is regional - in the UK we almost always say "holiday" where Americans would say "vacation" - so I would say "I'm going on holiday to Spain during the Christmas holidays". –  psmears Jun 23 '11 at 12:41
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Some commenter was correct. To an American Holliday means a dictated time or day,days off that the Government has seen fit to give. IE: XMAS, New Year, Obama Day hope not, on and on government dictated holliday from work.

Vacation. Your wish to get away from it all perhaps; to include the use of mandated Hollidays.

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That's e.g., not i.e.. theoatmeal.com/comics/ie –  IQAndreas Jan 10 at 15:41
    
This answer has already been given more than once. To support it, you should upvote those answers rather than submit a new one; this is a Q&A site, not a discussion forum. For additional guidance, see the Help Center. –  choster Jan 10 at 17:32
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The difference between those words, is in their use. Vacation, is used in American English. It is not used in the English of English and other, British people. The word holiday, is the normal word for British people.

Which word you use, will depend on if you are speaking American English, or not.

They both mean the same thing.

These describe the word vacation, as American English: http://www.ldoceonline.com/dictionary/holiday_1 and http://www.ldoceonline.com/dictionary/holiday_2

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What a bizarre way of using punctuation you have! This is the first time I've read something where the subject and the verb in a sentence are separated by a comma. Is this a special habit of yours, were you in a hurry when you wrote, or is there some other explanation? –  Paola May 1 '12 at 17:23
    
I'm British and I know the differences between American and English words but punctuation isn't my speciality. Thanks for your comment. –  Tristan May 3 '12 at 18:58
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