Words at Play

7 Words from the Working World

We promise it won't be a chore to read them.
Last Updated: 17 Sep 2019

worker at cluttered desk photo

Ergomania is the word for the excessive devotion to work—also known as workaholism—especially as a symptom of mental illness.

But too much work can be toxic. Working very long hours can be bad for our health. Ultra-long hours can kill. Ergomania can lead to problems such as depression, anxiety and addiction and can cut us off from friends and family, leaving us with only colleagues. If work disappears, work obsessives often have nothing to fall back on. A job loss can become a deep existential crisis.
— André Spicer, The Guardian, 28 Jan. 2019

Ergo- derives from the Greek ergon, meaning “work,” and gives us the noun ergonomics for the science concerned with how things (such as computers, cars, or furniture) are designed and arranged so that humans can use them in a way that avoids placing unnecessary stress on the body.

The word erg itself denotes a unit of work equal to 10−7 joules.

woman writing computer code photo

Another work word borrowed from the French, métier (pronounced like "MET-yay") is sometimes translated as “job” or “career” but in that language more accurately refers to the trade or profession in which one works.

In English we tend toward a more narrow meaning for métier, either as a job for which one is perfectly suited or a particular field in which one is extremely skilled:

She moved on, leaving behind the world of politics for the more congenial sphere of the arts. Trying, in turn, stage and television acting, talk-show hostessing, and magazine journalism, she found, for a time, a métier in decorating.
— Amy Fine Collins, Vanity Fair, March 2001

paintings on fridge photo

One of the few English words beginning with three vowels, oeuvre denotes the body of work over the course of an artist or composer’s career. In English it is pronounced as something close to "ERV-ruh."

Since Schumann more or less stopped composing after Robert’s early death in 1856, when he was 46 and she was only 37, her oeuvre is relatively small — just 23 published works — and comprises almost exclusively solo piano pieces, chamber music and lieder.
— Thomas May, The New York Times, 28 Aug. 2019

Oeuvre literally means “work” in French, in the same manner as the English and Latin word opus. It is the Latin opus from which oeuvre derives.

The term hors d’oeuvre, used for a food served as an appetizer, literally translates to “outside of work.”

tired man at desk photo

By its sound alone, drudge connotes the dragging and resistant nature of difficult labor. Perhaps that is why Samuel Johnson, in his 1755 dictionary, famously and winkingly defined his own profession, lexicographer, as “a harmless drudge.”

We define the verb drudge as “to do hard, menial, or monotonous work” and the noun as one who does menial or boring work, or the work itself.

Clearly defining her north star helped her through the drudge of hand-labeling products, packing shipments and testing safe formulas out of her kitchen at 2 a.m. Today her Los Angeles-based direct-to-consumer brand employs close to 50—and sells one mascara every nine seconds.
— Tanya Klich, Forbes.com, 4 Oct. 2018

As far as Johnson’s definition goes, we could not disagree more. We know from firsthand experience that lexicographers are anything but harmless.

railroad worker photo

Lexically speaking, nothing about the meaning of livelong pertains to work. But we might associate it with work, given that it is best known from a song about working: “I’ve been working on the railroad, all the livelong day.” Livelong here simply means “whole” or “entire,” and its two distinct, alliterative syllables make it a useful word for writing in verse. The narrator of the tune sings of working “just to pass the time away” while awaiting Dinah to blow her horn, presumably signaling a break for lunch.

Contemporary use of livelong almost exclusively modifies day in phrasings that echo the song’s lyric:

Where once it took Homer or Petrarch or Samuel Johnson or at least the yearbook editor or obituary desk to decide if you were worth writing about, in the 21st century you can write about yourself, all the livelong day, on Twitter.
— Virginia Heffernan, Wired, 20 Aug. 2019

wrought iron photo

Used to describe things like iron or prose, wrought was once a more common past participle of work, following the pattern of other participles such as bought, caught, and taught. Because it can also be used in the phrase “wrought havoc,” people occasionally misinterpret wrought at the past tense of wreak. The Biblical line “what hath God wrought,” taken from Numbers 23:18 and used as the first Morse code message transmitted over the Baltimore-Washington telegraph line in 1844, is not asking what kind of ruin God has imparted but exclaiming wonder over his creations.

Going beyond things worked by hand, wrought can describe a person who is deeply stirred or excited (as in “easily gets wrought up over nothing”), and overwrought can mean either “agitated” or “elaborated to excess, overdone” (as in “an overwrought narrative”).

woman thinking photo

Lucubration is a fancy word for the labors of the mind. It refers to intensive study, or a product of such study, and is usually used in the plural:

Studying philosophy, I found myself attracted to the liberal political and epistemological thinking of John Locke, David Hume, and, of course, John Stuart Mill. At the same time, I found the deductive lucubrations of Immanuel Kant and Georg Hegel implausible.
— Ronald Bailey, Reason, 25 Oct. 2018

The verb elucubrate means “to work out or express by studious effort.” Both words evoke the deep-into-the-night ruminations of a scholar, and so it’s appropriate that the Latin verb lucubrare literally means "to work by lamplight." For a while the word originally stressed nocturnal study, but now one can elucubrate any hour of the livelong day.




Comments
Love words? Need even more definitions?

Subscribe to America's largest dictionary and get thousands more definitions and advanced search—ad free!