If you’re taking a “busman’s holiday,” you’re spending your free time doing the same thing you do during work. For example, a carpenter who spends a weekend repairing a friend’s house is taking a busman’s holiday.
“Busman” refers to the driver of early buses, which were powered by horses. The phrase is originally British, dating from the end of the 1800s. It spread around the world, appearing in the Sunday Times of Sydney, Australia, in May 1896 and the Auckland Star of New Zealand in October 1902. It reached North America in 1909.
As for where the phrase originated, one theory says that if a busman wanted to go on vacation, he most likely would need to take a bus to get there. This seems reasonable, since a popular day out among working-class Londoners in the late 1800s was to make an excursion by bus. Somewhat more far-fetched is the idea that a cabby would spend his day off each week in riding about the city with a fellow cabby in order to keep him company.
Another theory appeared in John Ciardi’s A Browser’s Dictionary in 1981: “British drivers of horse-drawn omnibuses, becoming attached to their teams, were uneasy about turning them over to relief drivers who might abuse them. On their days off, therefore, the drivers regularly went to the stables to see that the horses were properly harnessed, and returned at night to see that they had not been abused.” Well, maybe, but the history of 1800s London buses says that their horses were no better cared for than any other working horses.
The popular phrase may, however, have been based on a Londoner’s joke, something like, “What does a busman do on his day off? He takes a bus ride with a pal, of course.” In time, the joke would have been forgotten, but the phrase, because it is so apt for many people, survived. If you enjoy your work, why not do it all the time?
The phrase is popular and has been used as a title for bands, films, songs, novels, and a TV game show. I haven’t used it myself, but I might just start.
After all, I write novels all day, and spend all night reading them.