The origins of words for ‘work’ suggest coercion rather than the salvation promised by politicians
In the modern experience, poverty is closely associated with unemployment or the absence of work. Since the earliest poor laws, work has been advocated as the remedy for poverty. Politicians repeatedly tell us that “work must pay” and that, like the good woman in the Book of Proverbs, none should eat “the bread of idleness“. Setting the poor to labour has been seen as the surest guarantor of combating poverty; and the Christian era has been dominated by the idea of a fair reward for an honest day’s work. The labourer is worthy of his hire.
But work has not always been a way out of poverty. For it is also axiomatic that it is the lot of humankind to labour, and not necessarily in the hope of achieving more than a bare subsistence. The etymology of all the words for “work” in European languages suggests work as coercion, certainly not for the prosperity of the worker, but as a fulfilment of human destiny. Ecclesiastes 3:22 declares: “There is nothing better than that a man should rejoice in his own works; for that is his portion.” Words indicating labour in most European languages originate in an imagery of compulsion, torment, affliction and persecution. The French word travail (and Spanish trabajo), like its English equivalent, are derived from the Latin trepaliare – to torture, to inflict suffering or agony. The word peine, meaning penalty or punishment, also is used to signify arduous labour, something accomplished with great effort. The German Arbeit suggests effort, hardship and suffering; it is cognate with the Slavonic rabota (from which English derives “robot”), a word meaning corvee, forced or serf labour. In romance languages, words from the Latin laborare have come to mean ploughing or tilling the earth, although in Italian, lavoro also means work in general. The Latin meaning was anything accomplished with difficulty and struggle.
The English “work” has an Indo-European stem werg-, via Greek ergon, meaning deed or action without punitive connotations; and Latin urgere, to press, bear down upon or compel. It is cognate with Gothic wrikan, to persecute, and Old English wrecan. Thus, in the word “work”, violence is latent, and it appears in the form wreak, when we speak of wreaking havoc or vengeance. “Toil” derives from Old French, meaning argument or dispute, fight and struggle.
Work was compulsion and punishment, an existential affliction which promised neither wellbeing nor even an assured sustenance. Traces of this more ancient lineage are present in many Biblical references. “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread,” declares the Book of Genesis; while another axiom much favoured by the taskmasters of the poor is from 2 Thessalonians 3:10: “This we commanded you, that if any would not work, neither should he eat.” The Book of Proverbs is particularly rich in evoking the perils of idleness and sloth. “Through sloth the roof sinks in, and through indolence the house leaks.” “Love not sleep, lest you come to poverty”; “Like vinegar to the teeth and smoke to the eyes, so is the sluggard to those who send him”; “Slothfulness casts into a deep sleep and an idle person will suffer hunger.”
Ancient ideas, especially those buried in the unvisited burial sites of words, have a tenacious afterlife. Edmund Burke in the 18th century took exception to what he regarded as the cant phrase of “the labouring poor”, because it suggested resistance to their fate by those who were born to work, however pitiful their reward. Work as the destiny of those who have no wealth but their labour retains its hold on the imagination of political nostalgics of all colours. If work is now offered as a form of secular salvation by contemporary politicians, its redemptive power was acquired slowly and over a long time-span, as the holy poor journeyed on their long descent from closeness to God to a condition of forlorn dispossession.
We should look carefully at the remedies proposed for an end to poverty by a punitive coalition, which announces reductions in assistance, not merely to those it sees as the refuseniks of labour, but also to the six million or so people working in Britain whose efforts fail to procure them a living wage. Despite the spectacular riches of modernity, the ancient function of work – as destiny of a fallen humanity – rather than as a means of overcoming poverty, shows itself through the threadbare ideological clothing of a government which draws inspiration for its “reforms” from the tenets of the 1834 reform of the Poor Laws. That, despite all the cuts, governments must nevertheless still supplement inadequate wages, allot allowances, eke out with a grudging dole the daily toil of so many people, suggests that work, far from representing relief from poverty, is rather a confirmation of an older interpretation of life, that humanity is destined to “eat the bread of anxious toil”. Words sometimes tell truths which the increasingly empty discourse of politics prefers to keep hidden.