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Pronounced /wɜːk/Help with pronunciation

“Work,” said Jerome K Jerome, “fascinates me. I can sit and look at it for hours.” Hardly anyone else seems to have had so kind a word for it, from Oscar Wilde’s “Work is the curse of the drinking classes” through to the sixties aphorism “Work is a four-letter word”. But at least they understood what they meant by the word: the 40/40 routine (40 hours a week for 40 years) of going to one’s workplace and carrying out duties for pay. But this week, a report by the Royal Society of Arts in London called Redefining Work expresses the view that such a conventional view is outdated, and that economic, social and technological changes are forcing a complete review of what it means.

The report argues that next century individuals will be selling their services into a global market, picking up work from various sources, perhaps from several employers at once, selling their skills to best advantage, creating what’s been termed a portfolio career in which they can flexibly turn their hands to a variety of tasks at need. I smile when these prognostications appear (for in truth this new report is only recapitulating a theme that’s been current for a decade or more) because along with a lot of other people I know I’ve been working in precisely this environment for about the last quarter century. (My accountant was once asked by a colleague what I did for a living. “Everything!” he replied, despairing of giving a concise answer.)

This is fine for those people who can work on broadly intellectual tasks, what Peter Drucker back in 1959 termed knowledge workers, but the prospect cannot appeal to those who do not have the flexibility and wide experience to pick up a living from wherever opportunity presents itself. But it does suggest that the word work is likely to shift its dominant sense once more. Today’s main meaning, essentially a synonym for “paid employment”, is really quite modern, dating only from the time when workers began to be brought together in factories (and later in offices) as a way of economically providing them with the motive power and services needed to do their jobs well; it’s a inherent part of the capitalist system, indicating an economic and social relationship as much as an activity.

The original meaning, first recorded more than a millennium ago, was the more general one of what a person does, or something that is to be done, “an act, deed, proceeding or business”, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it. This merged into the sense of those things which a person has to do: one’s tasks, employment, occupation or business. By an obvious extension, it also referred to things which were made as the result of one’s labours, so leading to phrases such as “a work of art” and to a series of compounds such as brickwork, handiwork, and firework as well as numerous other senses implying some act of creation. From the sixteenth century, it came also to be used — in the plural — for the place where some activity was carried on, such as a factory. As our most general word for doing something, and for something done, it has and continues to have an enormous range of applications.

The word derives from an ancient root which is also the source of the Greek ergon, which itself turns up in English words such as ergonomics, in the old CGS unit of work, the erg, and also in energy. A more hidden link is in some words ending in -rgy, such as metallurgy, thaumaturgy, and liturgy, which contain the Greek ergos, “worker; working”. Organ, argon, surgery, and orgy are other words from the same distant root.

Another derived word is wright (formed by transposing the r and the vowel in work), which was once commonly applied to a craftsman, though it now only survives in compounds like wheelwright, shipwright, and playwright. Grammarians say that the verb work was once a strong one, with a past tense of wrought (so in the Bible we have “what hath God wrought”, most famously transmitted by Samuel Morse as the first electric telegraph message in 1844), though it looks equally likely to be the past tense of the verb form of wright. Now it survives mainly in wrought iron, cast iron that has been reworked to make it more ductile, itself a near-obsolete material (there’s only one place in Britain still making it, the Ironbridge Gorge Museum in Shropshire).

Of course, work today continues many of its other senses apart from that of “job”, though they are mainly subservient to it. Perhaps if the RSA’s report is a good predictor, it may one day shift back further towards the sense of something which one has done as an individual rather than as a servant to someone else.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.

Page created 02 May 1998