‘Staycation’ is just another sad casualty of the war against pointless pedantry

Donald Clarke: The original meaning has gone the way of trolls, rebooters and gaslighters

You can safely bet that any plea for linguistic pedantry – insisting on the original meaning of “staycation” for instance – will bring forth Professor Bleeding-Obvious to disingenuously wonder if you know that language evolves.

“Many words you use today once meant something entirely different,” he (it’s always a he) will drone over your snoring noises. “It’s not so long ago that blah, blah, blah…”

These people are just no crack (do you see what I did there?). Leave us to our pointless crusades. Leave us to our genuine concern that, in the internet age, linguistic slippage is happening at a pace that defangs useful newish words almost before they’ve made it into respectable dictionaries.

Lest there be any confusion, the word 'staycation', which emerged in the United States as recently as 2005, originally meant remaining in your home during your holiday

Such are the perils of so much language being disseminated on so many informal platforms. There’s nobody hanging over the student with a ruler to hammer the “correct” definition of staycation into their fragile knuckles. The word emerges into popular discourse and, almost immediately, has its meaning so diluted that it’s hardly worth using anymore.


We will come back to those holidaying at or near home in a moment. Let us consider a few more recent casualties. As noted in this place before, the term "gaslighting" has its origins in a fine Patrick Hamilton play from the interwar years.

Best known in its incarnation as a 1944 film, Gaslight sees a husband toy with domestic circumstances to make his wife question her sanity. It was not until the 1960s that academics began using the term to describe a particular sort of abusive relationship.

Facts are distorted. Pointed jokes are made. Disingenuous concern – “Are you sure you’re not imagining it?” – contribute to a campaign of psychological warfare. The purpose is always to have the victim doubt their memory, judgement or perception.

The term trundled on usefully for a few decades until, in the social media age, it was expanded to mean virtually any sort of deceit from a person in power. You see this all the time with coverage of Donald Trump. No, he's not gaslighting you. You don't think you're going insane. He's just lying to you.

The dilution process happened more quickly with the online incarnation of “troll”. Towards the end of the last century the word migrated from Scandinavian folklore – possibly via angling – into developing lexicons of internet discourse. It described somebody who posts deliberately inflammatory opinions, often not sincerely held, to generate fury on internet forums or social media.

Such a person might, for example, write “Staycations Are A Soros Hoax” at the bottom of this article. The word had barely reached adolescence before its meaning had been widened to describe any sort of online abuse. We hear that this celebrity has been “abused by Twitter trolls”. A terrible thing, no doubt. But it is not for this that the word was coined.

One more for the road?

Ponder the fate of the cultural “reboot”. Becoming commonplace only a decade or two ago, the word was used to describe restarting (hence the computer analogy) an established fictional universe in a way that disregards established continuity and remakes its familiar characters anew.

Think of what happened to James Bond with Casino Royale in 2006. The picture is still part of the Bond franchise, but we have eliminated all continuing characters (bar Judi Dench’s M), and gone back to the beginning of this protagonist’s story. When Daniel Craig’s 007 meets Blofeld in Spectre he is apparently meeting him for the first time.

“Behold: Our First Look At The ‘Little Women’ Reboot,” Marie Claire blared at the end of last year. The magazine described the most recent version of Jane Austen’s Emma in the same way. No, no, no! Those barely even count as remakes (we’ll save that semantic debate for another day). Once again a handy term has been so stretched that it’s not worth keeping in the arsenal.

Not so long ago the idea that a holiday must take place abroad would have baffled an Irish person. We ate ice creams in the pelting rain. We played I spy in parked cars. We were happy. Okay, not exactly. But we knew we were on holiday

Before Professor Bleeding-Obvious gets to the podium, we should clarify that we’re talking about a slightly different phenomenon to the age-old business of an error being slowly edged into acceptable usage.

Just last week, OK! magazine, on its front page, noted that Prince George’s parents were “protecting him from the enormity of being king”. Does the magazine really see the monarchy as a great wickedness? The ancient misreading of “enormity” – which really did refer to a moral transgression –  as “enormousness” has now become almost acceptable in polite circles. It took a long time, but the battle may be lost.

What’s happening with the words above is something more rapid and more irritating. A sloppier, looser interpretation gets about before the syllables have had time to settle at the table.

“Gaslighting” had a precise purpose. So did “troll”. Now, we need to further clarify if we intend the original definition.

Which finally gets us to “staycation”. Lest there be any confusion, the word, which emerged in the United States as recently as 2005, originally meant remaining in your home during your holiday.

It did not refer to a vacation within your country. Given that just over 40 percent of Americans have a passport – and they now need that document to get into Mexico or Canada – such a term would not be of much use. US citizens are not as poorly travelled as wiseacres here pretend, but they do not holiday abroad nearly so frequently as Europeans. Why would they? They have half a continent within their own borders.

Not so long ago the implied assumption that an annual holiday must take place abroad would be equally baffling to an Irish person. Until the 1970s, air travel was an unimaginable luxury. It took another 20 years for the budget flight to put the world beyond western Europe at the ordinary person’s disposal. Before that we went to Lahinch. We went to Duncannon. We went to Ballycastle. We ate ice creams in the pelting rain. We played I spy in parked cars. We were happy. Well, okay, we weren’t exactly happy. But we knew we were on holiday.

Isn’t the use of staycation to mean – heaven forfend, Karen! – a holiday in Ireland just the tiniest bit classist?

Even before the current closedown, the nation was full of people who couldn’t afford a holiday overseas. Others simply preferred the internal option.

Oh, why bother? The word has gone the way of the trolls, the rebooters and the gaslighters. It now means what everyone now says it means. That’s democracy for you.