When you’re furloughed, are you on holiday?

Posted on Sun 18 Mar 2012 @ 3.34am UTC

FURLOUGH IS ONE OF THOSE old-fashioned-sounding English words that we usually meet in a situation or establishment where there is some kind of compulsory discipline.

It is pronounced [fur-loh] [IPA: /ˈfɜrloʊ/] with the stress on the first syllable.

The word is originally a military word meaning to be given a leave of absence. However, furlough has made tremendous headway in the civilian life. Indeed, furlough is often used to ‘sanitise’ the unpleasant situation of having to let go people from the workplace.

furlough (noun)

The noun furlough is the original word and has three meanings, all related to one another:—

  1. (Military) a vacation or leave of absence from military duty granted to an enlisted person
  2. a temporary laying-off of employees from work, usually because of insufficient work to occupy them
  3. a temporary leave of absence authorised for a prisoner from a penitentiary


Private John Smith was on furlough for seven days. (Sense 1)

Many plant workers have been forced to go on furlough
because of work cutbacks. (Sense 2)

Prisoner No. 1234 was granted a one-day furlough for good behaviour
and may visit his wife outside of prison. (Sense 3)

“I thought it altogether proper that I should take a brief furlough from official duties at Washington to mingle with you here today as a comrade, because every President of the United States must realize that the strength of the Government, its defense in war, the army that is to muster under its banner when our Nation is assailed, is to be found here in the masses of our people.”
— Benjamin Harrison (1833–1901), U.S. president, in a speech in Boston on 12 August 1890: Speeches of Benjamin Harrison: Twenty-Third President of the United States, Kennikat Press (1971), page 230.

furlough (verb)

Furlough started to be used as a verb from around 1783. The verb is still mainly used as an intransitive verb.

(An intransitive verb takes no object. A transitive verb requires an object.)

As an intransitive verb, to furlough has two main meanings:—

  1. to grant a furlough to somebody or some thing
  2. to lay off an employee or worker from work, usually on a temporary basis (especially common usage in U.S. English)

Private First Class John Smith was furloughed for seven days. (Sense 1)The blog was furloughed indefinitely. (Sense 1)

The production department was furloughed
during the office reorganisation. (Sense 2)

As a transitive verb (i.e. one taking an object), it has one meaning:—

  • to lay off someone or some thing from work, duty or service on a temporary basis

Management is furloughing the production staff
while it tries to develop a new sales strategy.

* * *

Word origins

The English word furlough is a variant of earlier English words furlogh and furloff. The modern pronunciation is by association with dough [doh, IPA: /doʊ/].

English furlough was originally spelt phonetically as furloff. The final ‘f’ sound disappeared fairly soon in English and the -ugh spelling developed in the 1770s. Furlough came to be used as a verb from around 1783.

Those two earlier English words originated in the 1620s from the Dutch word verlof, literally meaning ‘permission.’

The Dutch verlof itself came from the even-earlier Middle Dutch verlaf [ver, completely, for + laf, lof, leave, permission]. Dutch verlof is related to the Swedish förlof.

Interestingly, Dutch laf or lof is related to the the second element ‘-lieve’ in the English words believe and to leave.

© Learn English or Starve, 2012.

Images: Furlough Today via San Diego News Network | Furlough form via Gallagher.com | Furlough tee via Zazzle.com | Stormtroopers on furlough via Republic Trooper.

Posted in: Colour Section