Washington’s Birthday or Presidents’ Day–What’s In a Name?

Posted February 16th, 2015 at 1:00 am (UTC-5)
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Mount Rushmore, a sculpture carved into the granite face of Mount Rushmore near Keystone, South Dakota, features the likenesses of U.S. Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln. (AP Photo)

Mount Rushmore, a sculpture carved into the granite face of Mount Rushmore near Keystone, South Dakota, features the likenesses of U.S. Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln. (AP Photo)

The United States honors the country’s first president on the third Monday in February. The U.S. government gives federal workers a holiday – a paid day off. This year, the federal holiday the government calls George Washington’s Birthday falls on February 16.

But George Washington was not born on February 16. He was born on February 11, 1731 in the British colony of Virginia. Later, Britain and its colonies changed the kind of calendar they used. The new record-keeping system moved Washington’s birthday to February 22.

So, for many years, Americans informally celebrated Washington’s birthday on February 22. In the late 1800s, Congress made the day a legal holiday.

Then, about 50 years ago, Congress passed a law to give Americans more 3-day weekends. Lawmakers decided to celebrate George Washington’s birthday on the third Monday in February. That way, workers could extend their traditional two-day weekend to Monday.

But neither of Washington’s birth dates – February 11 nor February 22 – will ever fall on the third Monday in February. So George Washington’s Birthday is never really George Washington’s birthday.

Presidents Day

Some Americans consider the third Monday in February a day to honor not only Washington, but other past presidents.

In 1968, Congress passed a law that moved the official observance of Washington’s birthday from Feb. 22 to the third Monday in February. Some people also wanted to change the name of the holiday to Presidents’ Day, in honor of both Washington and Abraham Lincoln, whose birthday is on Feb. 12. However, that proposal was rejected by Congress, and the holiday remained officially Washington’s Birthday.

Even though the name change was never authorized by Congress, many Americans still think of the holiday as Presidents’ Day, which is often used on calendars, in advertising, and even by some government agencies.

Fun Facts

Here are some things you might not know about the country’s leaders.

Barack Obama is the 44th U.S. president, but only 43 people have served in the office. The reason: Grover Cleveland was the only president to leave the White House and return for a second term.

President Abraham Lincoln, right, receiving guests at his first reception in the East Room of the White House in Washington, D.C. in 1861.  (AP Photo)

President Abraham Lincoln, right, receiving guests at his first reception in the East Room of the White House in Washington, D.C. in 1861. (AP Photo)

Abraham Lincoln was the tallest president, at 193 centimeters. He was 30 centimeters taller than James Madison, the shortest president.

Speaking of short, William Henry Harrison served as president for the shortest time. He died after only 32 days in office. But in a way, he continued to serve: his grandson, Benjamin Harrison, become president 48 years later.

Franklin Roosevelt had the longest time in office: 12 years. He was the only president elected to a third and fourth term. After Franklin Roosevelt died, Congress made a law that presidents could serve only two terms.

James Buchanan was the only president who never married. John Tyler was the first president to be married while he held office. Grover Cleveland was actually married in the White House – and, he was the first president to have a child born there.

At 43, John Kennedy was the youngest person elected president. The oldest was Ronald Reagan. He was 69 at his inauguration ceremony.

Four former presidents are still alive. George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter were born in the same year. George W. Bush and Bill Clinton were also born in the same year.

The so-called Presidents' Club. America's living presidents from left: Then President George W. Bush, center, poses with then President-elect Barack Obama, and former presidents, from left, George H.W. Bush, left, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, right, Jan. 7, 2009, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo)

The so-called Presidents’ Club. America’s living presidents: Then President George W. Bush, center, poses with then President-elect Barack Obama, and former presidents, from left, George H.W. Bush, left, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, right, Jan. 7, 2009, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo)

And some presidents are still alive in our language. The children’s toy animal known as a teddy bear is named after Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt.

The official name of the highest mountain in North America honors William McKinley. But the president never visited Mount McKinley, or even Alaska, the state where it is found. Today, some call the mountain by its native name, Denali.

Finally, many English speakers wonder about the term “okay,” which is sometimes spelled with the two letters O and K. Okay is an informal way of saying yes. But where did it come from?

Some say the answer is President Martin Van Buren. Van Buren was from a town in New York called Kinderhook. Supporters affectionately called the politician “Old Kinderhook” or OK.

Kelly Jean Kelly
Kelly Jean Kelly is the lead writer and editor for the VOA Learning English U.S. history series.

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