A busman’s holiday

Example in use: “My friend’s a great builder, so I asked him to help us build our new kitchen as a favour. He took time off work and we got it done in just a few days but for him it was a real busman’s holiday of course.”

Meaning: time off from your regular work where you do something almost the same as your job instead of relaxing

Possible German equivalent: ein Urlaubstag, an dem man wie sonst arbeitet

Possible origin: The most widely spread theory on the origin of this idiom is that it refers back to the 19th century when London was full of horse-drawn omnibuses. The drivers of these buses were so concerned for the care of their horses that they checked up on them on their days off. They would travel around the city in the buses making sure that the relief drivers were treating the horses correctly. However, it is broadly believed that this is not very likely as we know that animal welfare was not considered important by most members of society at that time.

At the same time, it was quite typical for working-class people in London and other industrial cities to go on excursions by bus on their day off and this turned into a very popular activity. Therefore, if a bus driver or a conductor went on such a day-trip in his free time, there are some that believe this is the origin of “a busman’s holiday”.

This seems more likely than the first theory but there are many other references relating to this phrase in both England and America including one involving pickpockets. In a team of two, a pickpocket would work with someone who distracted the victim, called a “buzzman”. As criminals never have a day off, or at least are always “working” even in their free time, this could also explain the idea of a “busman’s holiday”.

Whatever the origin of the idiom, I think we can all think of times we’ve had a busman’s holiday!

busman’s holiday / ˌbʌs.mənzˈhɒl.ɪ.deɪ

Welcome again to our weekly series that hopes to go behind the scenes of some rather typical English expressions.