Thursday, September 28, 2017

Language of Confusion: Working Words

And now, synonyms for work. Because…I don’t know. Pretend I had a reason.

As a noun, work comes from the Old English weorc/worc, which basically just means work. It’s from the Proto Germanic werkan, also work, and before that the Proto Indo European werg-o, to do. The verb of the word has a slightly different origin. It’s actually a mix of two Old English words, wyrcan (cause, achieve, or make) and wircan, which is from a different dialect and can mean operate, function, or set in motion. Both words are from the Proto Germanic werkan, but it’s amusing to see how the words divided and joined back together like that.

Toil showed up in the early fourteenth century as both a noun and a verb, which was actually spelled toilen. The slight difference follows the word back in history, as in Anglo French the verb is toiller, meaning pull or drag, and the noun is toil, from toiler, to agitate. What a difference an L can make. But both words are from the Old French toeillier, drag around or make dirty. Before that they’re thought to be from the classical Latin tudiculare, crush with a hammer. That doesn’t make much sense, but neither does toil now meaning work hard these days.

Labor showed up in the fourteenth century, coming from the Old French laborer and classical Latin laborare, work. Nothing super interesting about this one, although labor did used to mean to plow back in the French. Weird how some uses of the word don’t get passed along.

Job is a relatively late word, not having shown up until the mid seventeenth century. It actually comes from a sixteenth century phrase, “jobbe of worke”, meaning a single task. Before that, no one’s really sure where it came from, although one theory is that it’s from gob. It’s hard to believe that such a common word these days just kind of popped into existence.

As a noun, Employ didn’t show up until the mid seventeenth century, but the verb showed up two centuries earlier meaning to expend or to apply something for some purpose. It comes from the Old French emploiier and classical Latin implicare, which sounds like implicate because it means implicate. It’s actually a mix of the prefix en-, in, and plicare, to fold. To employ is to fold in. And guess what, imply is from the exact same word. I couldn’t make this up if I tried.

Tony Jebson’s page on the Origins of Old English


  1. And now everyone is a slave to a job.
    I can see toiling and getting dirty going together. One more reason I hate toiling through yard work.

  2. If toil came from plowing, it makes total sense.

  3. "Toeillier" meant make dirty? And in French a toilette is to make clean. That's what went through my head when I read that.


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