A WORD IN THE HAND: LEAVE
Post-feminist noun takes leave of its sense for single Chinese women
A column to satisfy your inner grammar nerd
Leave is something most people don’t have much of at this time of year. Our leave balances, like our bank balances, have shrunk to embarrassingly low levels. What most of us forget, however, is that leave of this sort is actually an abbreviation, so no wonder we’re always short of it.
The full phrase from which leave stems is “leave of absence”. This expression was first used in military circles in about 1771, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. Leave of absence is what they called it when soldiers were given leave (in other words permission) to leave their barracks and their platoons and go somewhere else for a bit. Sometimes they were even given leave to wear non-brown clothing when on leave.
The permission sort of leave, which is a noun, and the going-away sort of leave, which is a verb, have the potential to create confusion. When you are given leave to be absent you may leave. And now, from “leave of absence” we also have the shortened noun, “leave”, which gives rise to the bewilderment I felt when reading this headline: “Single Chinese women given leave to find love.”
I read this “leave” as the original noun meaning “permission”, so my first thought was that this was yet more proof of the oppressive and intrusive nature of the Chinese authorities. Just the other day I was reading about facial recognition mechanisms in China: apparently they are used to spot people in the street when they are supposed to be on sick leave and then their pay gets docked. And here someone was saying that Chinese women need permission to be in a relationship? What sort of a post-feminist world are we living in?
Then I read further and calmed down a bit when I realised that the “leave” in this headline did not mean “permission” or “licence”. It should really have been spelt out in its full form: “leave of absence.” Because what the reporter was trying to say was that Chinese women of a certain age, who work in certain areas and who are not in a heterosexual relationship, will now receive an extra eight days of leave (of absence) in order to try and track down a potential mate.
So it may have turned out that these women did not require anyone to give them leave (as in permission) to find love, but the reality was just as bad: society condemns single women past their prime. So pitied and disparaged are these women for not having found love that they are now given special leave (as in a holiday) because love must be found even if productivity has to suffer in the process.
I felt better for having worked out the grammar, but again I have to ask: what sort of a post-feminist world are we living in?
I leave the last words about leave to the Roman poet Horace, who used the word in its permissive sense when talking about the human tendency to make up words. (This verse was brought to my attention by the admirable wordsmith Anu Garg in his A Word A Day newsletter; if you haven’t yet signed up for this you really should.)
Here’s Horace, and bear in mind that he died 2,025 years ago:
Men ever had, and ever will have leave,
To coin new words well suited to the age, Words are like leaves, some wither every year, And every year a younger race succeeds.
Horace probably did not know the meaning of “leave of absence” even though poets in his day were given a lot of free time away from the office in order to do their all-important thinking (and perhaps to find love). But given his tolerant nature, he would probably not have frowned on single women who preferred to use their leave for other purposes.
Horace, I feel, would have given us all leave to take leave for any reason whatsoever.