Whether you love it, hate it, or treat it as a necessary evil, this is something that we’ll spend approximately a third of our lives doing, but it is so much more than just a substantial block of time. Today’s word is work, and when it comes to using the word in English, it’s a lot of work in work.
When it comes to English, there are 2 distinct types of work: the verb of work, meaning the actual action of doing an activity, and the noun of work, meaning the product of activity of labour. As could be imagined from commonly used words such as these, they are as old as English itself, and, though somewhat linked in meaning, they have slightly different origins. The noun work comes from the Old English weorc, worc and meaning, essentially, ‘something done or made from the product of labour’. As a verb, work originated as a combination of the Old English terms wyrcan, meaning ‘to do, make, produce’, and the Mercian wircan, meaning ‘to operate or set in motion’, with both coming from the Proto-Germanic werkan.
At its simplest form as a noun, work is an action or activity involving physical or mental effort undertaken in order to achieve a result. Writing in Mercian Old English around 950, The Vespasian Psalter states: “Exiet homo ad opus suum : utgaeð mon to werce his.”, (“Man goes out to his work” in Latin and Mercian).
When we look at work as an act or deed that has been done, it can be traced back to the Catholic Homilies compiled by the abbot Ælfric of Eynsham, who writing around 1000AD penned: “Þæt weorc wæs begunnen ongean godes willan.” (that work was begun against God’s will).
Discussing work as a collection of future activities to be done, the West Saxon Gospels, written around 990, states in Mark 13:34: “Se man ælþeodilice ferde forlet his hus & sealde his þeowum þæne anwald gehwylces weorces [L. potestatem cuiusque operis].” (It is like a man going on a journey. He left his house and put his slaves in charge, assigning to each his work, and commanded the doorkeeper to stay alert.).
Finally, as a noun, work can be the result of effort itself. In a translation of the Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius (originally written in the early 6th century) made during or shortly after the reign of Alfred the Great (approximately 880 to 950): “Alfred” writes that, “Ic wa[t] ðætte God rihtere is his agenes weorces.” (God is the governor of his own work).
When it comes to work in order to make or create something through labour, a prime example can be found in the Old English epic poem Beowulf, which describes a helmet as: “’was wound with chains, decked with gold, as in days of yore the weapon-smith worked it wondrously.”
Far removed from the world of Old English, though work is still work – except, maybe for the Beowulf reference – what we do and the way that we do it has changed. In the modern world, we are more concerned with finding the right work-life balance. Even in the last couple of decades, we can see that the idea of everyone going to a brick-building and working from 9 to 5 now seems antiquated. More of us are doing freelance work and/or taking part in the rising peer-to-peer economy, and, in our work itself, we are looking for something meaningful that actually makes a difference. Contrasted with the Haymarket affair in 1886, which began when workers in Chicago demanded a now-standard 8-hour work day and which became the driving force behind the celebrated today modern holiday of Workers’ Day/May Day, and Labour Day in a number of countries, it’s easy to see how far we have come in the ways that this word fits into our lives.