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

  • 4
    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
    Commented Jun 23, 2011 at 11:50
  • My university says 'vacation' when we're off, when they mean 'holiday'. But that's just silly.
    – user62109
    Commented Jan 12, 2014 at 19:58
  • Maybe the university usage was meant to include periods between terms when there was "no class" but also no "holy day". The buildings were 'vacated'.
    – user126158
    Commented Nov 24, 2015 at 21:55
  • Maybe the English usage came from before anyone was able to take a vacation. The only leisure time possible was on a Holy Day.
    – user126158
    Commented Nov 24, 2015 at 22:20

5 Answers 5


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:

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.

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.

  • I'll buy that. I never heard anyone speak of bank vacations. Commented Jun 23, 2011 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
    Commented Jun 23, 2011 at 12:27
  • 4
    @Rhodri, the "Christmas vacation" (e.g. from school) might last a couple weeks, of which one day is the actual holiday of Christmas. Commented Jun 23, 2011 at 13:04
  • 3
    "Holidays" (plural) in US English will almost always mean Christmas / New Year's time period. I presume since the other holidays only come singly. Commented Jun 23, 2011 at 22:03
  • 1
    @smackfu We started calling it "the Holidays" (plural) when the religions became more plural, and Christmas was too narrow a term.
    – user126158
    Commented Nov 24, 2015 at 21:52

In the UK "going on holiday" means taking time off, which is 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. Americans don't say "going on holiday" for that, though; we might "go away for the holiday" or "take time off for the holiday". We might even "go on vacation during the holidays", but "on holiday" isn't how we express it.

  • 5
    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". Commented Jun 23, 2011 at 22:01
  • In the UK, "on holiday" is not always used in the phrase "going on holiday". You can be "on holiday" if you have the day (or some days) off work, even if you're at home. "Going on holiday" implies travel to somewhere for leisure.
    – Rosie F
    Commented Nov 7, 2022 at 6:05

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.

  • 4
    On this side of the Atlantic, the word vacation is almost never used. They're both holidays.
    – TRiG
    Commented Jun 23, 2011 at 12:33
  • 3
    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
    Commented Jun 23, 2011 at 12:41

The difference between those words is in their use. Vacation is used in American English. It is not used in the English of the 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

  • 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
    Commented May 1, 2012 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
    Commented May 3, 2012 at 18:58

Some commentator was correct. To an American, holiday means a dictated time or day; days off that the government has seen fit to give (IE: XMAS, New Year, on and on). It's a government-dictated holiday away from work.

Vacation. Your wish to get away from it all perhaps; sometimes including the use of mandated holidays.

  • That's e.g., not i.e.. theoatmeal.com/comics/ie
    – IQAndreas
    Commented Jan 10, 2014 at 15:41
  • 1
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    – choster
    Commented Jan 10, 2014 at 17:32

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