This coronavirus pandemic is giving rise to a whole new set of phrases and words – like social-distancing, self-isolation, furlough … We are all using them, as nouns and verbs, is if they have been around for centuries. Well, at least in the case of furlough, it has. And it is not, as some have thought, an Americanisation that has sneaked into the good old Anglo Saxon vocabulary to usurp another word that is just as good, if not better: like layoff.
Furlough, during this current pandemic, is being used to describe the means by which an employer can lay off an employee temporarily, with the Government picking up 80% of the salary bill, rather than making them redundant because they do not have sufficient work or money coming in to keep the staff member employed during the lockdown.
Furlough, in the seventeenth century meant ‘a temporary laying off of employees, usually because there is insufficient work to occupy them’ (Collins Dictionary). I doubt though that the Government (i.e. the taxpayer) was quite so generous back then. The word comes from the Dutch – verlof (ver = for, lof = leave) and is related to the Swedish word forlof.
Furlough also meant – and still does – permitted leave of absence from military duty, and was in common use into the nineteenth century, particularly during parliamentary wrangling over the miserly leave allowance of Indian army officers, and again in the first half of the twentieth century which encompassed two world wars.
Admittedly the word has not been on the tips of our tongues during the last seventy years (at least on this side of the pond). Until, that is, this pandemic has brought it whizzing back into the modern lexicon.
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