Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

The Summer of the "Staycation"

Summer's not officially over, but now that Labor Day is past and the kids are off to school, it's a good time to look back at the latest batch of estival vocabulary. Back in June I made a case for skadoosh, a fanciful word from the movie Kung Fu Panda, as a candidate for Word of the Summer. And in an interview in July on Wisconsin Public Radio, I discussed some other summery words, from skinterns (scantily dressed Washington D.C. interns) to lawnmower beer (light refreshing beer brewed for easy consumption after a day of yardwork). But like it or not, the one new word that has trumped all others in the Summer of 2008 is staycation, the media-driven coinage for a stay-at-home vacation.

On Labor Day Salon.com published an article by Billy Frolick that captures the ambivalence that many people feel about the word staycation as a euphemism for "too broke to go anywhere." Marketers and media types have latched onto staycation as a way to make lemonade from the lemons that the economy has given us this summer. With gas prices and air fares soaring, why not stay at home (or at least locally) and enjoy the attractions in your own vicinity? It's a nice pitch for local tourism, but it has also led to a backlash. In June, Comedy Central's "The Daily Show" trenchantly skewered the staycation as a cynical attempt to put a happy face on bleak economic conditions. (You can watch the video here.)

Staycation is buzzy, but it's not entirely new to this summer. The Salon piece cites my research on the term, taking it back to its earliest known appearance in an online review of a trip on the Celebrity cruise line, from May 5, 1999: "Hello, Cruisers! Finally back from a stay-cation in Palm Beach immediately following our Feb. cruise so ... sorry so belated!" It started showing up in print in 2003, as used by a writer from The Myrtle Beach Sun-News: "By definition, a 'vacation' should involve vacating, as in going away. Mine was more like a 'stay-cation' — nine glorious days and nights in Myrtle Beach." Both of those examples are hyphenated, but by 2005 it was appearing in unhyphenated form, as in this example from the Washington Post: "We love August because it seems like everyone is gone. The city empties out. The commute becomes bearable. It's the perfect time for a 'staycation,' to dig in those heels and enjoy the comforts of home: 300-thread-count sheets, stainless outdoor fire pit, well-stocked fridge."

It's not surprising that staycation has popped up several times independently, since it's an easy blend or portmanteau word to concoct. There have been a number of vacation blends over the years, some predating staycation. For instance, daycation (referring to a day trip) appeared as early as 1993, in the Toronto Star. (A spokesman for the Toronto theme park Canada's Wonderland said that bad weather had helped their business: "Because people took less driving vacations, we became an attractive 'daycation.'") Daycation and staycation are obvious blends because they replace the first syllable of vacation but maintain the long-a vowel sound. One could just as easily coin words like praycation or oyveycation to describe different kinds of vacations. I've also seen breakation (a three- or four-day trip away from the kids) and paycation (getting paid to go on vacation). The more general pattern of X-cation (not necessarily rhyming with vacation) has cropped up as well, perhaps most notably in mancation — a vacation for male friends away from their significant others (popularized by the 2006 romantic comedy, "The Breakup").

As I observe in the Salon article, staycation might not ultimately have much staying power, since media and marketing buzzwords have a habit of dying off after the initial hype fades away. Will the word make it into the major dictionaries? Possibly. I could see it eventually being included in the Oxford English Dictionary, even though the editors there often wait a decade or longer before determining whether a new word or phrase is worthy of inclusion or is a mere flash in the pan. It's conceivable that an entry could be created for the suffix -cation that would encompass all of the X-cation terms, with staycation being the most prominent example. That's the way the OED deals with combining forms like -aholic, -alicious, -bot, -nap, -orama, and so forth. In all of these cases, the OED notes that they're primarily used to create "nonce words" (one-time ad hoc formations, often for humorous purposes). That would be a way of including staycation and its X-cation cousins without having to worry too much about "staying power."

What do you think? Is staycation here to stay, or will it linger only as a misty memory of the Summer of Aught Eight?

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Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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