English Word Series: Work

The English verb ‘work’ was once known as ‘wircan’ 1500 years ago meaning, ‘to operate and to function’.  The noun ‘work’ was once ‘worc’ which meant, ‘something done: deed, action, proceeding, business, or military fortification’.  Both words came from the Proto-Indo-European base ‘*werg’ making ‘work’ over five thousand years old.  

The earliest meaning of work was to describe any kind of action involving effort or exertion, ‘it was hard work rowing, for the wind was against him’.  This negative connotation has seemed to stick to ‘work’ throughout the centuries.  By the late 18th century ‘work’ was used as a verb to mean negatively influencing or persuading someone’s will.  By the early 19th century ‘work’ described a criminal act or activity, and by the mid 20th century ‘works’ described a drug addict’s equipment for taking drugs.  In Old English ‘work’ also had the meaning of ‘fornication’- a meaning that dissipated before the Middle English period.  

As an unusual contrast, ‘work’ also had very positive connotations.  It was used in theology in late Middle English to describe good or moral acts or deeds.  It was also neutrally used to describe what a person (or thing) had to do in the future, be it a task or a function, ‘Fie upon this quiet life!  I want work’ (1590).

Most common in Modern English however is ‘work’ used to describe one’s regular occupation or employment.  ‘Work’ could describe the result of employment be it, ‘the operation, action, or labour of a worker’.  By late Middle English ‘work’ could describe the style and ‘workmanship’ of an object, ‘A rare clock of German worke’, and even a general characteristic effect, ‘heat had done its work on them by turns’ (1635).  The term ‘worker’ to describe a bee was first recorded from 1747, and the noun ‘working-class’ from 1789.  

From Middle English onwards ‘work’ was used to describe a literary or musical composition.  This extended by the late 17th century to an architectural or engineering structure.  By the mid 16th century mathematicians had adopted the word ‘work’ to mean the process of a calculation written out in full.  ‘Work’ was then borrowed by physicists in the middle of the 19th century to mean, ‘the operation of a force in producing movement’.  In the early 20th century ‘work out’ was used as boxing jargon to mean ‘strenuous physical exercise’.