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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

gap year

(2000’s | journalese | “year off,” “Wanderjahr,” “sabbatical”)

A no-doubt-about-it Briticism. “Gap year” turned up in English newspapers in the 1980’s and was very common by 2000. It did not start to show up in U.S. publications until after the turn of the millennium, suggests LexisNexis. As late as 2005, most occurrences in the American press labeled (not “labelled,” thank you very much) both the term and the concept as British. By 2017 it has become standard American usage with occasional variants, such as the “bridge year” offered by Princeton University. Thorough definition and list of synonyms here. I got used to seeing the phrase a couple of years ago when Malia Obama was getting ready to graduate from high school, and there was much speculation about whether she would take a gap year (she did).

In American English, a gap is almost always a divide or deficit that should be bridged, filled in, or made up. But this term seeks to make something commendable out of it (although one suspects “bridge year” and other substitutes have sprung from lingering negative associations of “gap”). In its own narrow domain, it seems to have succeeded; many educators agree that gap years are valuable, at least for some students, and should be held free of any taint of laziness or irresponsibility that crusty old academics — or parents — might be inclined to attach to them.

It is said occasionally that working adults take a gap year — here again, the Brits seem to lead the way to new frontiers in usage — but they remain predominantly the prerogative of the recently graduated. (Although it’s no longer exceptional for students to take them during their college careers rather than at the beginning or end.) It would sound odd to refer to a professor’s sabbatical as a gap year, for example. But when an executive takes a trip around the world in mid-career, it might rate the term. The old expressions were more poetic: “kicking up your heels,” “a wild hair,” even “whim.” It’s all so methodical now; the gap year has spawned programs, counselors, fellowships, etc., and the restless spirit is gone. It’s just one more carefully planned part of your education, designed as much to intrigue admissions committees as to enrich the gapper.

The gap year generally entails good works, or at least a paying job. At one extreme, you have globetrotting do-gooders calling at every port to tend the poor and sick, care for maltreated animals, teach yoga to children in war zones, etc., etc. This sort of account is very easy to parody, but I suppose we should resist the urge and acknowledge the value of young people working for the betterment of others, even when they get a little self-righteous. Most gap years are more prosaic. Yet the term seems bound up with an improving use of one’s time, so spending a year goofing off on the beach shouldn’t be called a gap year. It could be, but it wouldn’t be (I nominate “goof year”). Just as a middle-aged wage slave taking a year to go back to school and finish a degree probably wouldn’t call it a gap year, though it’s theoretically possible. One takes a gap year to get away from school, not to return to it. But I wouldn’t be surprised if the term gets quite a bit looser. It has grown popular in its brief life in the U.S., and its denotations and connotations are likely to spread out.

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