Not long ago, my friend Josh (seen here) sent this photo of himself in front of a casino in Las Vegas, where he was vacationing. He also added the caption “busman’s holiday.” Why? Because he works at a casino on the East Coast.
When you take a busman’s holiday, you spend your free time doing something that you normally do for work (or something similar).
We enjoyed our behind-the-scenes tour of the airport. But for my uncle, a pilot, it was a busman’s holiday.
Rachel, a shopping mall personnel manager, didn’t enjoy her visit to the Mall of America. After all, it was a busman’s holiday.
According to The Word Detective Evan Morris, one popular explanation of the term comes from 19th century London. In order to ensure the well-being of their horses, drivers of horse-drawn buses would spend their days off riding their own bus, making sure the substitute driver was responsible with the animals.
However, Morris doesn’t agree.
Neither does Robert Hendrickson. In his Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, he notes that the term busman’s holiday wasn’t recorded until 1921 and was probably in use for at least ten years before that. The timing just doesn’t seem to jibe with 19th century London and, Hendrickson says, the story can’t be authenticated, leaving the idiom in the “origin unknown” category.
So where might busman’s holiday have come from?
Morris offers this explanation:
Well, I don’t believe that it was “busman’s” in the first place, or that it had to do with buses at all.
I think that the phrase was originally “buzman’s holiday.” A “buzman” or “buzzman” in 19th century British criminal slang was a pickpocket, and to “buzz” was to pick someone’s pocket. The word came from the common practice of two pickpockets working as a team, one of whom would “buzz the mark,” or engage the victim in conversation, while the other picked his pocket. The underworld argot of that time contained a wide range of “buz” words synonymous with “buzman,” among them “buznapper” (from “nap” meaning “to snatch”), “buzbloke,” and “buzcove.” Charles Dickens depicted a “buznapper’s academy,” or pickpockets’ training school, in his “Oliver Twist,” run by the dastardly Fagin.
Now the question is, “When is a pickpocket’s holiday? When is he off-duty, not cruising for a score?” Simply put, never. Pickpockets are always working to some extent, and I think that’s the point of “buzman’s holiday.” I think the phrase probably arose as a sardonic comment on the voracity of criminals, and gradually spread as a metaphor for anyone who seemed unable to “put down his tools.” Only when the phrase reached the stratum of polite society where “buzmen” were unknown did the heart-warming story of “busmen” arise from an attempt to explain the origins of the phrase.
What do you think? And have you ever taken a busman’s holiday? What was it like?