Burning questions about teaching English in China #6: You say vocation, I say vacation

Puzzler #6: Why do Chinese like to take “vocations”?

Now that it’s the summer holiday for students and teachers (Yay!), let’s talk about another pair of commonly confused words here in China – and maybe elsewhere. They differ by only one letter, so I suppose that is one explanation why they are so often confused. But, as which “make” and “let”, their meanings are almost the opposite of each other. So, using one in the place of the other makes you look rather foolish.

A vacation /vei ‘kei ʃən/ is a break from your everyday work.

A vocation /vou ‘kei ʃən/ IS your work.

Here are some photos to make the distinction even more clear.

Go on a hike. Contemplate nature.

Tourists visit, and the Pope addresses the faithful, at St. Peter’s Square, Rome

Skiers on a lift, and Doctors Without Borders in a hospital.

A vocation is not just an ordinary job. We don’t say a factory worker or a sales clerk has a vocation. We use the word specifically to describe a specific kind of occupation, one requiring a special dedication or sense of responsibility. The examples I gave above are monk (or nun), priest (or Pope), and doctor (or nurse).

Both “vocation” and “vacation” come from the Latin language, which was the common language of the Roman Catholic Church – and of Europe – for hundreds of years. Latin words entered English through the Church, through French (remember the Norman invasion of England in 1066?), and from scientific and scholarly study.

Vocation is the older of the two words. It was first used in the 1500s to describe a person devoting his or her life to religious service. It later acquired the additional meaning of a person being “called” – the root of the word – to a demanding career.

The root of the word is vocatio, Latin for “summons” or “summoning.” That word was derived from vocāre, Latin for “to call,” and vox, “voice.” The linguists say vox descends from the Sanskrit word vāk (voice), which makes it even older than “make” and “let” from last week. [Make comes from Old English macian and let from Old English læten. The current spellings appeared 900 years ago. Sanskrit, in contrast, is at least 3,500 years old.]

People who enter religious life often say they were “called” by God (or Buddha or the Tao or Allah, etc.) to quit their normal lives and lead lives of poverty and devotion. Maybe it was a voice in their mind, or some external event that led them to such a life-changing decision.

Another way to describe the same feeling to “have a calling” to do something. “She was called to be a doctor.” “Teaching was her calling in life.”

A vocation means years of hard work and little rest.

Vacation, on the other hand, means something very different. While it also comes from Latin, this word was coined – created – fairly recently (1883) by a writer who was describing the new custom of leaving town to take a trip somewhere, like to the beach. So, he took the word “vacate,” meaning “to leave completely,” and changed the Latin verb ending “-ate” to the Latin noun ending “-ation,” to create a new word meaning “leaving town to take a holiday.”

Another way to say it would be “leave your house vacant to take a holiday.” “Vacant” and “vacate” both stem from the Latin words “vacāre,” meaning “to leave,” and “vacuāre,” meaning “to empty.” That last word stems from the noun “vacuus,” meaning “empty space” or “nothing,” which also gives us the English word “vacuum” (真空 zhēnkōng).

A vacation means a few days or weeks of no work and lots of rest.

So, dear readers, please check your English spelling, because one letter can make a big difference. You don’t want to make confusing PPT slides like this one I found online.

Proofread your slides!

Merriam-Webster Dictionary


By the way, the title of this article is an allusion (出处 chūchù) to a song by George and Ira Gershwin for the 1937 movie Shall We Dance. The couple are singing about their differences in saying words, and in their backgrounds.

You say either and I say either,
You say neither and I say neither
Either, either Neither, neither
Let’s call the whole thing off.

You like potato and I like potahto
You like tomato and I like tomahto
Potato, potahto, Tomato, tomahto.
Let’s call the whole thing off

Full lyrics at Metrolyrics.com

That 1937 movie, Shall We Dance, inspired a 1996 Japanese movie about ballroom dancing Shall we ダンス? Sharu wi Dansu?, which in turn inspired a 2004 American adaptation Shall We Dance? AND a 2006 Egyptian film, Let’s Dance (Egyptian Arabic: ما تيجي نرقص‎, translit. Mah teegy nor’os). All of them are quite funny.

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