Gov't Shutdown to 'Furlough' Federal Employees
Furlough was among our top lookups on January 20th, 2018, following the word's sudden applicability to a number of state-employed workers, as the government shutdown went into effect.
As the U.S. government shuts down, nearly 41,000 employees in various U.S. federal health agencies will be furloughed, triggering potential delays in medical care services and payments to medical care providers, a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services contingency plan shows.
—Bruce Japsen, Forbes (forbes.com), 19 Jan. 2018
Furlough comes to English from the Dutch verlof, which in that language means "permission." This meaning is reflected in the early use of the word in English; the earliest sense in which we used furlough was "a leave of absence granted to a governmental or institutional employee (as a soldier, civil servant, or missionary)." In modern use it is more often used to be synonymous with layoff than leave of absence.
While furlough has functioned as a noun since the early 17th century, it did not begin to be employed as a verb until the end of the 18th. Among our earliest citations for the verb comes from a letter by George Washington to the President of Congress, in 1783.
As all the troops who compose this gallant army, as well those who were furloughed, as those who remain in service, are men of tried fidelity, I could not have occasion to make any choice of corps; and I have only a regret, that there exists a necessity that they should be employed on so disagreeable a service. I dare say, however, they will on this and all other occasions perform their duty as brave and faithful soldiers.
—George Washington, (extract of letter) The Pennsylvania Gazette, 23 Jul. 1783