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.

While travail is rooted in torture, another French word for work, Ĺ“uvre, comes from the Latin opus relating to accomplishment and creativity. The word work itself is rooted in the ancient Indo-European word werg meaning, simply, "to do." Etymologically, therefore, work is related to energy ("in or at work"), lethargy ("without work"), allergy ("oppositional work"), synergy ("working together"), liturgy ("public work") and organ ("a tool" as in "working with something").

Words for work and related to work, then, need not only have negative connotations and, in the words of the Guardian article, "tortured roots." Work can also be taken as a neutral term, or in positive ways, as in a work of art.

More importantly, this should be more than an esoteric, intellectual exercise. Rather, the linguistic features of work reflect the realities of human work--it is embedded in many elements of the human experience and occurring in many ways. Yes, it can be negative and it is something that often needs to be done when we'd prefer to be doing something else. But it need not always be so negative. As a society, we need to re-connect with the deep meanings of work not only for individuals but also for democracy, develop new norms that value work that is not rewarded by the labor market, and create institutions for improving how work is experienced.

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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.