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Employing Unspeak

I asked whether there existed a word for “disinclined to work” that was value-neutral or positive, as opposed to the negative “work-shy” or “lazy”, the sneering joke-malady “ergophobia”, etc. ((I don’t think that either “playful” or “ludic” count, since one may of course have a playful attitude to work — or, for that matter, a laborious attitude to play. (See Johann Huizinga, Homo Ludens.) )) I still haven’t found one, but more light browsing of the very wonderful HTOED does seem to support the view that there has long been a general semantic association between a disinclination to work and actual stupidity or even madness. As one obvious example, idle has been used to mean “not based on reason”, “frivolous”, “empty-headed”, and even “madly foolish” or lunatical (1599), as well as disinclined to work, fond of not exerting oneself, or simply workless (1848–). ((I was also pleased to have the OED disprove a brief suspicion passing through my mind that “shiftless” had passed from meaning “without work” to “lazy”: in fact, it derives from the old sense of shift “faculty of resourcefulness”, so shiftless first meant “helpless for self-defence; void of cunning or artifice”. As they were wont to say in 1562, “god defends the shiftles sheepe”. Oh sure, until it’s lamb-chop time.))

I also wondered about the connotations of unemployment (1888–), which arguably implies that if one is not used by another person, one is of no use altogether (even if one would be happy to employ one’s time in various activities for which no one is offering payment). A better term for the state of not-having-a-job, perhaps, is the happy find unwork (a one-shot from 1854). Why didn’t that catch on, I wonder?

  1. 1  Neil  November 25, 2009, 10:06 am 

    Semi-retired? I know what the dictionary definition says, but I think we all know it’s actually a euphemism for, roughly, “doesn’t need to work, so doesn’t”.

  2. 2  Katherine Farmar  November 25, 2009, 2:28 pm 

    Perhaps The Idler might have some suggestions?

  3. 3  Bruce  November 25, 2009, 3:09 pm 

    Someone once defined* work (or rather “hard work”) as “doing what you don’t want to do”, which implies that disinclination itself makes “work”.

    But we’re probably talking about disinclination to participate in some economic/political system which “forces” us to perform certain activities for a given number of hours per day, etc. In which case, the semantics/history of slavery seem relevant. The Marxist term, “wage slavery” seems apt to me. Then there’s alienation and bureaucratisation.

    It probably says a lot about the capitalist (and Puritan/Calvinist – see Max Weber on the protestant work ethic) mindset and history that the only “positive” (or socially acceptable) terms for disinclination to participate in economic slavery seem associated with metaphors of “making it” (the self-made entrepreneur) – a sign of receiving God’s grace according to those influential early protestant sects.


    On exploration of the “ludic revolution”, see The Abolition of Work:

  4. 4  richard  November 25, 2009, 4:17 pm 

    I for one think that a binary division of human attitudes between work and play is just plain wrong. Where is relaxing beside a body of water with an alcoholic beverage in that mix? Both work and play are different from repose, and also from the “care of the self.” Play might even be construed always as a form of work.

    Marx, of course, assumed Homo Faber or something like him as the universal human “ground state,” so he was probably as opposed to a fundamental disinclination to work as anyone.

    Now, though, I want to know about the history of “shift” in the sense of “a group of workers that relieve another on a regular schedule.” (American Heritage Dictionary). First, the common use of “relief” and “compensation”, seems to offer the other half of a dialectic in attitudes to work and (perhaps) leisure. Second, though, for professional reasons I want to know how “shift” replaced “watch” to describe this condition of working in parties to achieve continuous operation. Douglas Harper’s Online Etymology Dictionary says it’s “attested from 1809, perhaps influenced by a N.Sea Gmc. cognate word (e.g. N.Fris. skeft “division, stratum,” skaft “one of successive parties of workmen”)” and comes from mining. But wacht had been in use for centuries by then to describe divisions among seamen and the maritime day.

  5. 5  Steven  November 25, 2009, 4:37 pm 

    From OED:

    Shift sb. IV Change, substitution, succession.

    8. A plurality of things of the same kind that are or may be used successively. 1611 Second Maiden’s Tragedy She has her shifte of frendes.

    12. A relay or change of workmen or of horses. 1708 The Pit will require…4 shifts of Horses. 1812 Two shifts or sets of men were constantly employed.

    b. The length of time during which such a set of men work. 1809 Like miners, faith, we’ll try a shift, An’ work by turns.

    Watch sb. I Wakefulness, vigil
    4 [tr. L. virgilia, Gr. phulake…] Each of the (three, four, or five) periods into which the night was anciently divided.
    III nautical uses.
    17. [Developed from sense 4.] That period of time for which each of the divisions of a ship’s company […] alternately remains on deck […] 1585 We about the first watch sayled straight towards the port of Carry.

  6. 6  richard  November 25, 2009, 5:10 pm 

    1611, eh? Thank you. As usual, it doesn’t lend itself to neat narratives. While the city- or night-watch shoots down any implication of nautical distinctiveness. Sigh.

  7. 7  Bruce  November 25, 2009, 5:22 pm 

    There’s a sense in which “work” could refer to any kind of effort or activity – certainly play (and perhaps even rest – the body works to repair your tissues, etc, as you sleep).

    But when we talk of disinclination to work, are we not referring to a different sense of work? For example a social constraint or restriction which makes rest or play or enjoyment relatively difficult during a large part of the day?

    I worked for several years in an office job, and despite my best efforts to remain “positive” or playful or relaxed in that job, I ended up with chronic stress-related symptoms and a sort of depressed, crippling boredom. That made me somewhat disinclined to “work”, and I guess slaves throughout the centuries (whether waged or chattel) have had similar or (obviously) worse reactions.

    As I recall, the unspeak used by protestant industrialists to get workers to work ever longer hours in factories was along the lines of a “calling”. God wanted you to work until you dropped – good for the soul. Play/enjoyment only as rationed, guilty reward for honest toil.

  8. 8  Steven  November 26, 2009, 12:03 pm 

    Yes, Quentin Skinner in “Some Problems in the Analysis of Political Thought and Action” is v good on this:

    […] the example of those who were concerned in early seventeenth-century England to legitimate their novel commercial and capitalist enterprises. They chose to attempt to legitimate this untoward behaviour in part by seeking to describe it in terms of the concepts normally used to commend an ideal of the religious life. […] It was […] plausible to make such an attempt, since there was a certain element of structural similarity — which they eagerly exploited — between the specifically Protestant ideal of individual service and devotion (to God) and the alleged commercial ideals of service (to one’s customers) and dedication (to one’s work).

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