2014 UK-to-US Co-Word of the Year: gap year

Finally, the last of my Words of the Year. I declared two US-to-UK words this year because both (awesome and bake-off) seemed very much 'of 2014'. In the case of the UK-to-US words, I also gave up on deciding between two excellent nominations, though the case for '2014ness' is not quite as strong. We've been seeing a lot more Britishisms in the US for some years now.  The other UK-to-US Word of the Year (dodgy) and today's have been nominated before. (I'm grateful to Nancy Friedman for making both these apt and informative nominations.) They are worming their way in rather than making a big splash. But in both cases it seems to be time to acknowledge them. So the UK-to-US Noun of the Year is:

gap year

That is, a year off from education between school and (AmE) college/(BrE) university. (If your first reaction is 'but that's not a word!', please go straight to the bottom of this post for a linguistic schooling.)

Why is this worthy of the title UK-to-US Word of the Year? Well, first of all, it passes the 'UK-to' criterion by being very British in origin. Here's the OED's record of it:
Secondly, it's definitely made its way into the US. From Nancy Friedman's nomination of it:

Ben Yagoda wrote about it in his Britishisms blog in November 2012 (http://britishisms.wordpress.com/2012/11/01/gap-year), but 2014 was the year it went mainstream in the pages of Time (May 14) and USA Today (Oct. 28). The American Gap Association ("Integrity in Gap Years") was founded in 2012.
The trajectory of gap year in UK (red) and US (blue) books from Google Ngrams shows its progress up to 2012:

Americans started to notice the word around the times that Princes William (2000) and Harry (2004) took their gap years, but it was the financial crisis that really helped it along. In lean times it makes more sense for young people to spend time out of education before the very expensive undertaking of higher education. By taking a year off, they can work to save money to finance their studies or just use the time to make sure that they really want to go to college/university. And that's what's been happening more and more in the US. Wikipedia says:
Some 40,000 Americans participated in 2013 in sabbatical programmes, an increase of almost 20% since 2006, according to statistics compiled by the American Gap Association 
As someone who teaches in higher education, I'm all for it. The students who come to us after some time off from education are generally more mature and ready for serious study. They also have more varied experiences to reflect on when taking part in classroom discussions (which is very relevant to me when I teach Intercultural Communication).

Perhaps this should have been a Word of the Year in 2012 (instead of bollocks), since that's when it really seemed to be institutionali{s/z}ed in the US. But Nancy's evidence of how 'mainstream' it's gone in the US is enough to convince me that it needs to be ceremoniously marked as a successful UK-to-US import. So, all hail gap year, my final Word of the Year for 2014. My thanks to all who got involved in the nominations.

Again, some may protest that this is not a possible word of the year, because it is more than one word. And to this I say, as I have said before, that a space in a string of letters is not what makes expressions into words. Language is a spoken thing prior to being a written thing, so the evidence of writing is not the strongest type of evidence when it comes to language. Gap year fits linguistic criteria for being a word (an open compound) because:
  1. It has a single part-of-speech (noun).
  2. It has a meaning that is more than the sum of its parts. (In linguist lingo, it's non-compositional.) Thus, it's the kind of thing that dictionaries record.
  3. It is indivisible. You can have an enjoyable gap year but you can't have a gap enjoyable year. You can have several gap years but not several gaps year or gaps years. You could talk about how you feel pre-gap year or post-gap year, but not gap pre-year. Nothing (with the exception of profanity, English's only infixes) can go in that space between gap and year.


  1. Then what were AmE speakers calling it before? "Sabbatical programme" doesn't cut the mustard, because that could be a period taken out between any two years, not merely between school and university (using BrE terms there).

    (Apologies if this was in fact covered in any of the references, which I didn't bother reading. Christmas-lazy.)

  2. We just... didn't have a name for it. Back in my not-so-long-ago day (the 90's) we would say "I'm taking a year off" and that was that. Certainly nobody used any term like "sabbatical program," even with the American spelling!

  3. In my school-leaving days the sons (and increasingly the daughters) of families that were financially comfortable and/or trend-setting and/or ambitious stayed on in school for at least a term, so as to attempt the Oxford and Cambridge scholarship exams.

    When Oxbridge joined the 'clearing house' system and abandoned the exams, then the practice of delaying entrance to university became hugely more common, and thus vastly more spoken of.

    I can remember when people spoke of a year off and very often a year abroad. The context was sufficient for identifying precisely what was meant. Gap year eventually filled the niche with a 'word' that couldn't apply to other differently-spent years,

    Sabbatical was never a contender. A sabbatical is a year off (well it used to be a year) that is simply an interruption — followed by a return to the same (originally academic) occupation.

  4. In the U.S. until very recent years, there was not only no name for taking a year off, it was very rarely done. If you were going to go to college, you went right after graduating from high school, period. People who didn't were anomalous enough to get a label for them (used by colleges, not by themselves): "non-traditional students". But these were as likely to be in their 30s or 60s as merely delayed by a single year.

  5. There is an established practice among religious Jews (in the US at least) to take off a year between high school and college to study religious topics in Israel. Nevertheless, I don't recall any particular name being associated with this practice. Nor have I ever heard "gap year" with the discussed meaning that I can recall.

  6. There's an excellent Youtube video parodying the British stereotype of a certain kind (and class) of post-gap year student: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eKFjWR7X5dU

  7. The only people I knew from my high school graduating class who had a gap between high school and college were this who enlisted in the military. The assumption was that if people didn't go straight to college, they never would go at all. Of course there were plenty who started college, then "took a year off" to wait tables, be a ski patrol, or the like, and then finished college.

  8. @Ella V: program surely *is* the American spelling? Although in my BrE book a programme is something you watch (or the like) whereas a program is a piece of software. Speaking as a programmer. But I digress.

  9. How appropriate: my eldest daughter is having a gap year right now! She had an offer from Manchester but felt it wasn't really what she wanted to do so decided on a gap year to re-focus and reapply. And she's earning money in the meantime - what's not to love about the gap year? I do remember that some of our friends had gap years when we left school in the late 80s, so the term has been knocking around for some time.

  10. The first written use discovered by the OED is from 1978. The term may have been in spoken use for a few years before that, but not (at least not to my knowledge) when I left school in 1963.

  11. Nobody, as far as I recall, talked of gap years when I was an undergraduate (1971-74) so mid to late 1970s for the arrival of the phrase looks good to me

  12. BrE, Scot, graduated mid 70s. I don’t really remember the term itself much before the late nineties. However, it was fairly common for people to take a year out - usually to travel - between the end of their first degree and whatever came next (PhD, professional exams (e.g. accountancy), or simply getting a job). This was also, occasionally, called a gap year.


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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)