January 2013 Archives

The Roots of Words for Work

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An article in yesterday's Guardian correctly revealed the negative associations in language that have long been associated with words for work:

Words indicating labour in most European languages originate in an imagery of compulsion, torment, affliction and persecution. The French word travail (and Spanish trabajo), like its English equivalent, are derived from the Latin trepaliare - to torture, to inflict suffering or agony. The word peine, meaning penalty or punishment, also is used to signify arduous labour, something accomplished with great effort. The German Arbeit suggests effort, hardship and suffering; it is cognate with the Slavonic rabota (from which English derives "robot"), a word meaning corvee, forced or serf labour.

Unfortunately, experiencing work in arduous ways and seeing it as something that we have to do rather than as something we choose to do is all too frequent, not only in today's society, but in many societies stretching back to ancient Greece and presumably before. But this shouldn't be the entire story.

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About this Blog

Whither Work? is a blog about work created by John Budd. I am a professor of Work and Organizations in the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management, and the author of several books including The Thought of Work. Follow me on Twitter: @JohnWBudd.