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Having served in the United States Marine Corps, I have often wondered about the origins of the word "field day," but I am not referring to its meaning as

1.a. a day for military exercises or maneuvers

1.b. an outdoor meeting or social gathering

1.c. a day of sports and athletic competition

or

  1. a time of extraordinary pleasure or opportunity

    (as in the newspaper had a field day with the scandal)

(Source: Merriam Webster.)

In the military, or at least in the United States Marine Corps that I once knew, "field day" also refers to (and much more frequently) that one day of the week when Marines clean the barracks. The day used to be Thursday, but in recent times has moved to Monday by some commands.

I actually submitted this question to NPR's "A Way With Words" about a decade ago, but never received a reply back or heard the question answered on the radio. I would love to know when it first began being used as a phrase to mean cleaning the barracks.

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According to phrases.org.uk, field day has a meaning of

A day of excitement or a circumstance of opportunity

with the first reference being in 1747, in A Scheme For Equipping And Maintaining Sixteen Men Of War: Of Twenty Guns Each

...as it were Field Days, for improving and approving their Valour and Prowels...

As you mentioned, this is often used with the idiom "Have a field day". Two things stand out to me here:

1) A field day, in a militaristic sense, refers to the opportunity to both prove and improve ones ability to accomplish required tasks. This could refer to battlefield maneuvers, but it could also refer to more simplistic tasks (such as cleaning the barracks).

2) As a field day originally referred to a chance at practicing, the difficulty involved should be minimal. This would draw a clear connection with, for example, reporters being handed a story that is easy to write about. In my opinion, it is considered a field day because the task at hand is uncomplicated and straightforward, requiring a minimal amount of skill in order to succeed.

In combining those two points, field day as it refers to the cleaning of the barracks, is a chance for a unit to show that it is able to accomplish simple tasks efficiently.

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    I detect a touch of irony. – Hot Licks Dec 19 '15 at 19:10
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A Field Day is a result of the ROE for a training schedule. Each military organization MUST post a training schedule for the month which is adjusted weekly. The days needed to train not in Garrison but in the field were pre-scheduled as a simple place on the training schedule for the month for scheduling purposes. The week prior would be adjusted identifying the actual event (23/07/2016 Firing Range),thus giving the Soldiers the time needed to prepare the equipment needed in advance.

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