by Piet Coetzer

The vacation explosion

Why not only leisure but bikinis and tanning are essentially connected to the holidays

Final word - The vacation explosion

This coming Friday, schools across the country are closing and soon the builders and many factories will also cease work until early in January. The December vacation is here and for us in Cape Town, it means an explosion of cars with upcountry registration plates on our roads and bikini-clad girls on our beaches. 

The concept of a vacation is described by most dictionaries as “freedom from obligations, leisure and a release” from normal activity or an occupation.

It arrived in the English language only by the late 14th century, but comes from the Latin word vacare, meaning to be “empty, free or at leisure”.

Columnist Earl Wilson’s description of vacation is probably closest to the common perception that “a vacation is what you take when you can no longer take what you’ve been taking.”

But maybe it is not quite true for all the members of the family, as American writer Marcelene Cox once observed, “A vacation frequently means that the family goes away to rest, accompanied by a mother who sees that the others get it.”

Thinking of all the painful bikini waxes in preparation for the tanning that is to follow, it is probably most appropriate that the Latin vacare is also the root of the word 'vain'.

But what all the beautiful girls in their flimsy bikinis do to the mind of the male of our species could also easily fit the dictionary definition of vain: “Devoid of real value, idle, unprofitable” and often “silly, idle and foolish”.

For those ladies who are still shopping around for a bikini to take along on this year’s beach vacation, I want to offer the words of US comedienne Rita Rudner as advice, "Women shop for a bikini with more care than they do a husband. The rules are the same. Look for something you'll feel comfortable wearing. Allow for room to grow."

An anonymous quote I came across described a bikini as follows: "A bikini is like a barbed-wire fence. It protects the property without obstructing the view."

As the father of a 15-year-old daughter, I may, in Afrikaans, call a bikini a 'bietjiemin', translating as a 'little-little'.

Many would probably agree with the assessment of American humorist Erma Bombeck, who famously said, "There is less and less difference between government and a bikini: everyone wonders how it holds, and everyone hopes to see it falling."Before we get to the origin of the name and the history of the bikini, we should first have a quick look at the subject of tanning in the sun. The modern word 'tanning' comes to us from the Old English word tannian, describing the art of converting hide into leather by steeping it in tannin, which in turn comes from the Latin word tannare, which means to dye, or which describes a tawny colour. This, in turn, comes from tannum, which is the name for crushed oak bark used in the process of 'tanning' leather.

The term was first used in the sense of “making brown by exposure to the sun” during the early 16th century. The concept of achieving the same effect with the human skin dates back to the mid-18th century.

While today we know that the custom of tanning on the beach greatly feeds our vanity, we also know that it poses serious health risks if not indulged in wisely, by protecting our skin against the harmful effects of the sun’s ultraviolet rays.

The other day at home, I floated a seemingly brilliant idea: what if I offered a free service this vacation – helping the bikini girls on our beaches by applying their protective lotions for them?

My wife’s reaction was that I had probably experienced a hormonal explosion in the head. And she was perhaps closer to the truth than she realised. It turns out that the modern bikini got its name from an island, Bikini Atoll, in the Pacific where the Americans tested the effects of the atomic bomb shortly after World War 2.

When French engineer Louis Réard and fashion designer Jacques Heim were ready to launch their 'new' swimwear in Paris in 1946, Réard claimed it would cause an upheaval akin to the atom bomb. And that is how the bikini got its name.

But the design was not as new as Heim and Réard might have thought. Mosaic tiles dating back to the period 286-305 AD in the Villa Romana in Sicily depict women dressed in what today would be called bikinis, while they seem to be doing some exercises.

Archaeologists also found coloured tiles and statues in Pompeii and elsewhere, depicting the goddess of love, Venus, wearing a 'bikini'.

It would seem that 'hormonal explosions' are not only a modern-day phenomenon.

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