November 25, 2009
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?