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  • Mark Allen

Holiday’s name is self-evident: It’s the date on which it falls

Updated: Jul 4

You are free to parade, grill, engage in pyrotechnics, and otherwise celebrate Independence Day, but don’t feel it necessary to call it that.

Before the adoption of Juneteenth as a federal holiday, the celebration of the nation’s birthday had the distinction of being the only official holiday named for a date rather than a person or event. The holiday was originally known by the date on which it falls, and only later did "Independence Day" make it into the U.S. Code.

The Oxford English Dictionary records a reference in a diary to “Independence Day” in 1791, and a Google Book search shows “Independence Day” was in use before Congress established July 4 as a day off in 1870. But the 1870 act, which made July 4 an unpaid day off for federal workers in the District of Columbia, called it “the fourth day of July.” So did the act that extended the day off to all federal workers in 1875.

Those acts referred to all holidays as dates, but descriptive language was included for the other holidays, as in “the twenty-fifth day of December, commonly called Christmas day.” There was no such description of the holiday that fell on the fourth day of July. In 1938, Congress decided to make “the Fourth of July” and other holidays paid days off rather than unpaid breaks.

The first Congressional reference to “Independence Day”  appears to be a 1959 act that makes Friday, July 3, a paid day off, describing the holiday as “Independence Day (July 4).” The portion of the U.S. Code that deals with paid federal holidays now lists “Independence Day,” but it’s not clear when the name was first included.

The federal government's human resources office has a handy guide by year to all federal paid holidays.

The Associated Press Stylebook allows for Independence Day, July Fourth, or Fourth of July. It may give the impression that it has a preference, but this will vary depending on which you look up first. All are acceptable.

A search of Google’s Ngram Viewer, which searches Google’s book database for frequency of terms, shows “Fourth of July” and "4th of July" more commonly used than “Independence Day.” Use of  “Independence Day” steadily rose in Ngram Viewer’s American corpus since around the 1850s and was sometimes on par with "Fourth of July," but “Fourth of July” seems to be the current favorite.

In the spirit of the holiday, then, we are free to call our day off whatever we like.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t note here that it is incorrect to describe July 4 as the day the Continental Congress voted for independence. Richard Henry Lee’s resolution that the “United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States” was adopted on July 2, 1776. The letter to King George spelling out the reasons for the separation was adopted two days later.

Following the lead of the founders, I submit these facts to a candid world.

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