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Hail To The Chief: The Origination Of Presidents’ Day

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If you live in the United States, you might have a Monday in February off (unless you work retail). That special Monday is Presidents’ Day! But you might be interested to know that the Presidents’ Day holiday isn’t the official name of the holiday at all, and some states customize the day, too.

The Uniform Monday Holiday Act

The day was originally established in 1885 to honor the birthday of our first president, George Washington, who was born in 1732 and died in 1799. In fact, the holiday itself is still officially known by the federal government as “Washington’s Birthday.” President Rutherford B. Hayes signed a bill into law in 1879 making George’s birthday a holiday, but it was originally just for the District of Columbia. The rest of the country was added in 1885.

The term Presidents’ Day became a thing in 1971 due to the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which was an attempt to create more three-day weekends for workers. This also had the effect of moving the date from February 22 to the third Monday in February, and also folded in President Abraham Lincoln’s February 12 birthday.

Why Not “CEO Of The United States?”

Have you ever wondered why the president is referred to as … the president? Wikipedia says that around 1789 or so, other terms like Highness, Electoral Highness, Excellency and Majesty were being tossed around as potential titles for the top job. Vice President John Adams liked that last one, though Thomas Jefferson reportedly said that it was “the most superlatively ridiculous thing I ever heard of,” and Benjamin Franklin considered those types of titles to be “absolutely mad.” Did he tell them to go fly a kite?

Looking for a challenge? Of course we have a Presidents’ Day quiz, like that was ever a question…

Hurry! Sale Ends Monday Night!

The focus on Presidents’ Day centers around our two most well known presidents, Washington and Lincoln, but History Channel notes that it’s really morphed into a patriotic day that celebrates the achievements of all our leaders. They add that “some states have even chosen to customize the holiday by adding new figures to the celebration. Arkansas, for instance, celebrates Washington as well as civil rights activist Daisy Gatson Bates. Alabama, meanwhile, uses Presidents’ Day to commemorate Washington and Thomas Jefferson (who was born in April).” The holiday also gives car dealers an excuse to have weekend holiday sales, because apparently nothing says “Presidents’ Day” like a brand new Toyota/Ford/Honda/Volvo/etc. Why the car sales? The Atlantic reports that it started with…bicycles.

So Do We Use The Apostrophe, Or Not

When you do a search for Presidents’ Day online, you’ll notice that it’s rendered different ways. And there is a reason for that. Let’s defer to the Wikipedia entry (although here at Dictionary.com, we take the lead of the Chicago Manual of Style):

Because “Presidents’ Day” is not the official name of the federal holiday there is variation in how it is rendered, both colloquially and in the name of official state holidays. When used with the intention of celebrating more than one individual, the form “Presidents’ Day” was usual in the past.

In recent years as the use of attributive nouns (nouns acting as modifiers) has become more widespread, the popularity of the form “Presidents Day” has increased—this is the style favored by the Associated Press Stylebook, and followed by most newspapers and some magazines. “President’s Day” as an alternate rendering of “Washington’s Birthday,” or for the purpose of commemorating the presidency as an institution, is a proper use of a possessive and is the legal spelling in eight states. It is however a misspelling when used with the intention of celebrating more than one individual (see also apostrophe).

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