“Garden/ing leave”

Friend of NOOBs Ben Zimmer points out a line in a New York Times article about Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter’s retirement: “His post-Vanity Fair plans involve a six-month “garden leave” (Mr. Carter is fond of Britishisms) and a rented home in Provence.” The link goes to a Wikipedia article saying the expression “describes the practice whereby an employee leaving a job – having resigned or otherwise had their employment terminated – is instructed to stay away from work during the notice period, while still remaining on the payroll.”

The original form was “gardening leave.” The OED gives a 1981 citation from The Times (the British newspaper), the inverted commas indicating it was a recent coinage: “There are too many senior officers on permanent ‘gardening leave’.” The Wikipedia article says that the expression gained popularity through its use in a 1986 episode of the TV series “Yes, Prime Minister.” The OED’s first citation for the shortened “garden leave” is a 1990 Financial Times article. For more background on both variants, see this 2010 post by Nancy Friedman.

All OED citations for both versions come from U.K. sources, but they show up now and again in the New York Times, for example in a 2011 article about a Goldman Sachs executive who had “to take a paid 60-day leave before he could start at Dealbreaker [a satirical blog], a common industry waiting period referred to as a ”garden leave.”’

I was interested to learn about this expression because I’m currently undergoing it myself. I’ve retired from the University of Delaware, which allows prospective retirees to take a sabbatical at reduced pay before walking out the door. UD’s slightly morbid name for this period: “terminal leave.”

19 thoughts on ““Garden/ing leave”

  1. The most common form for me is the gerund ‘gardening leave’. I’ve never heard of it being called ‘garden leave’ before. It’s a very common term in the industry that I work in (publishing).

  2. Common usage in UK is gardening leave. Mandatory leave when changing jobs within same industry, especially finance, to forestall deals being switched to new employer.

  3. I, too am a Brit who has never heard of ‘garden leave’.
    Yes, there is the form of pre-departure gardening leave but there is also the kind in which employees (typically police or holders of high office in institutions) who are accused of a misdemeanour are sent home with pay while the case is investigated.

  4. ‘Garden leave’? I’ve never heard this as a variant of the common ‘gardening leave’. As well as the two uses in the post above, it is common in the Armed Forces to use this term to refer to unexpected (paid) leave when there are gaps between appointments or courses. Whether someone is on gardening leave for reasons of luck or ill-luck (e.g. being relieved early with no new post to go to) can often only be gleaned from context.

    1. Yet another Brit here who has never heard the shortened “garden leave” version before. I just found references to the military version of the term in a 1918 edition of Hansard.

  5. I’m familiar with it from the cartoon strip Alex – which is set in the London Merchant Banking world. Doesn’t sound like it would be funny, but if you liked Yes Minister, it’s similar but with the added bonuses of skewering the corporate banking world and reflecting current issues. It has on occasions turned out to be true!

    Anyway, in Alex ‘gardening leave’ is compulsory, either because they want to get rid of someone who has an iron-clad contract, or to delay someone starting at a new job elsewhere (and taking clients and current insider knowledge with them). It’s a solution to the ‘non compete’ clause in a contract.

    I don’t think that an optional sabbatical counts as ‘gardening leave’ 🙂

  6. Not quite the same meaning but a phrase used by journalists and higher editorial folk, in the forties and fifties, who were absent from the office and didn’t want to be found was “He’s touring in the west country”, referring to the counties of Cornwall, Devon, Somerset and Dorset.

  7. There was a reasonably high-profile example of this recently in the world of F1 where Lewis Hamilton’s former chief engineer – Jock Clear – had to take 12 months of gardening leave before joining Ferrari from Mercedes. This was so he couldn’t give away engineering secrets to the Italian team.

    I wasn’t going to mention it as it’s one of many examples of the phrase, but I quickly Googled it and actually found an *Italian* website using it, not in translation…

    “Da mesi si parlava del possibile accordo fra Jock Clear e la Ferrari, nelle ultime ore è arrivata la conferma, l’ex ingegnere della Mercedes si è unito alla scuderia del cavallino rampante, dopo aver finito il periodo di Gardening Leave, terminato a Giugno, Jock Clear potrà seguire da vicino le prestazioni di Sebastian Vettel e Kimi Raikkonen.”


    So if it is a Britishism it seems to be a useful phrase filling an unfilled niche not only in American English but also in Italian!

  8. Well Ben…All I can say is I hope you enjoy retirement. I thought I’d miss working but I don’t. As it happens, I now do more gardening than ever before …and I enjoy it.
    Will you continue with NOOBs? I hope you do!

    Best wishes.

  9. As everyone else has said, it’s gardening leave, not garden leave. It’s something that originates in dusty corners of government here, where it was used primarily for getting rid of civil servants who had blotted their copybook in some way or were useless old duffers, sacking being considered out of the question.
    Good luck with your retirement, Ben. Glad to see you are keeping the blog. Mention of Delaware has me humming “In Delaware when I was younger…”.

  10. An unusual pair to this is the term ‘rustication’, referring to suspension of a student from a university, for academic or disciplinary reasons. Its etymology is the Latin ‘rus’, or countryside, because students so suspended would return to their houses on the country. Commonly used to this day in the universities of Oxford and Cambridge.

  11. For some reason I thought our host was quite young (i.e., early forties at the oldest). Perhaps he is merely young at heart.

  12. Sounds like Carter was using the term incorrectly. Maybe not – but gardening leave is usually imposed upon a person, not planned. To me it sounds like Carter is just planning on spending some time in his garden – or using up his unused annual leave or whatever.

    1. I doubt that the term is being used in the modern sense there.

      The written answer refers the questioner to an answer previously given to the hon. member for York, Arnold Stephenson Rowntree. (Presumably of the family of Quaker chocolatiers.) That question concerns a soldier being given “leave of absence on agricultural furlough to permit of his digging and planting an allotment.” The MP was trying to wangle the continuation of the man’s army pay during the absence, arguing that he was contributing to the war effort by producing food. (See https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/written-answers/1917/jun/11/agricultural-furlough.)

      So it’s literally leave to grow plants, (albeit on an allotment rather than in a garden as normally understood), rather than just keeping out of the way as the trade secrets that you have learned lose their currency.

  13. This sounds a lot like what they do with police officers in the US who commit serious crimes and are given a slap on the wrist and a paid suspension. I doubt they’re gardening on their time off lol

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s