ENGLISCH/789: Questions to Mrs Gobbledygook (137) A busman's holiday (SB)


137. What is a busman's holiday?

Dear Mrs Gobbledygook

A friend of mine who lives in Birmingham is a housepainter. He is very cooperative, always willing to help. He married a swedish girl and on their holidays the couple usually comes to Sweden to stay with their mother and father in law, who live next to us. That's how we met. On their last stay my friend was very busy redecorating their mothers cottage. When I asked him if he weren't sorry to miss a proper swim or sun bath and added that in my opinion he didn't have much of a holiday, he just laughed and said: "Well, I quite enjoy this busman's holiday."

Now my question: What is a busman's holiday? Fred never got near a bus as far as he is concerned.

Yours sincerely

Ian Johnsson (from Sweden)


Dear Mr Johnsson

A busman's holiday: This expression goes back to the days before motor engines, the days when buses were still pulled by horses and when horsepower was truly provided by horses. The man who drove and worked the horses was the busman.

Now it seems that sometimes the man who had this job, loved his horses so much, that when he was not working himself he was afraid that the horses would be badly treated. So he spent his free day travelling on the bus as a passenger in order to be with his horses. His holiday was spent doing more or less the same as he did every working day.

And that's the origin of the expression "A busman's holiday".

Your poor friend used this word, because he was spending most of his holiday doing what he does most of the year for a living. Even if he didn't work or ride on buses he had "a busman's holiday".

If a busdriver spent his holiday on a coach journey you could also say that he was having a busman's holiday. By the way, the odd thing is, that the word "busman" is not normally used anywhere except in this expression. A person who drives a bus is a bus driver. And in few places these days when a second person works on a bus who takes the money and gives out the tickets, that person is called a conductor. The same word as the musician who conducts an orchestra. That fact can also lead to missunderstandings.

Talking of buses, in English a "bus" is used in towns. But the same vehicle that is used on longer trips is a "coach". "Bus" is originally the last syllable of the latin word "omnibus" meaning for everbody. But these days the word "bus" is used in many languages, either by itself or with the word "auto" in front of it. So it really is a very international word.


Mrs Gobbledygook

23 June 2008