The word ‘furlough’ comes from the Dutch ‘verlof’, which when translated means “leave of absence”. Hence, it can be inferred that furlough refers to a leave of absence. It especially refers to a leave that is granted to a member of the services. This can include the armed forces, such as the army, navy, air force, etc. This leave of absence can be granted due to some personal matter, or for a vacation.
Furlough can also refer to a leave of absence that is granted to a prisoner. This kind of furlough is usually granted under special circumstances such as a death of a family member, or a special occasion. This leave of absence can also be granted for a special purpose, such as participation in a work program.
The term also describes a situation where an employee has been temporarily laid off of work. Here the person does not need to come to work and is not paid for the time off. This is basically a type of layoff that is done due to special needs of a company, which may include economic conditions, bad business season, etc. These involuntary furloughs may be short or long term, and are always temporary, which means that the company will hire them back as soon as it is able to do so. This usage of the term is more common in the United States and is commonly used for government employees rather than private employees.
Furlough can also refer to the actual papers that sign off on the leave of absence. For example: he carried his furloughs in his right hand.