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The word “job” and its low-class kin

This post is in answer to a correspondent’s query. What I can say about the etymology of job, even if condensed, would be too long for my usual “gleanings.” More important, in my opinion, the common statement in dictionaries that the origin of job is unknown needs modification. What we “know” about job is sufficient for endorsing the artless conclusions drawn long ago. It would of course be nice to get additional evidence, but there is probably no need to search for it and no hope to dig it up. Finally, as I have mentioned time and again in the past, “of unknown origin” is a misleading formula. It can mean that we know nothing at all about the history of the word under discussion (a relatively rare case) or that our information is inconclusive, or that, though several competing hypotheses exist, it is impossible to choose among them (all look equally hopeless or equally reasonable). But our information on job is rather full, and I think we can offer the public a more satisfactory answer than “of undiscovered origin.”

Samuel Johnson, the author of a famous English dictionary (1755), called job “a low word now much in use of which I cannot tell the etymology” (a low word was his favorite phrase; it meant “vulgar” or perhaps what we today call slang).  He defined job as “a low, mean, lucrative busy affair.” To see how “low” it was, we may quote Thomas Sheridan, who made a name not only as a successful playwright but also as an active politician. Among other things, he declared: “…if from any private friendship, personal attachment or any view other than the interest of the public, any person is appointed to any office in the public service, when any other person is known to be fitter for the employment, that is a job.” It appears that Sheridan had to define or at least elucidate the word for his audience, but the OED has citations illustrating a similar sense dated to 1667. Apparently, that sense had not become  universally known, or perhaps at the peak of Sheridan’s career, job was supposed to be unpronounceable in good society; as late as 1755 Johnson said “a low word now much in use.”  It took the disreputable noun some time to lose its vulgar tinge and merge with the Standard. Also, toward the end of the seventeenth century, job “a piece of work,” seemingly devoid of negative connotations, surfaced in print. Perhaps even that sense was stylistically charged, something like the modern potboiler; it is hard to tell.

“Job-job-job.” Image credit: “Woodpecker Bird Picking Tree Feathered Forest” by werner22brigitte. CC0 via Pixabay.
“Kap-kap-kap, the Russian way.” Image credit: “Tap Dripping Drop” by StockSnap. CC0 via Pixabay.

Alongside the noun job “a piece of work,” the verb job “to strike, peck” existed. Lexicographers are not sure whether the two words are connected, but it is reasonable to assume that they are. The verb seems to be primary: you peck, peck, peck, and “a piece of work” is done. If this is how matters stand, then only the verb needs an etymology. Our seventeenth-century dictionaries do not feature job. The earliest suggestion about the origin of the verb seems to have been made in the 1820s: job was identified with the Classical Greek noun kópos, which meant “a blow” and “work.” Of course, Engl. job cannot be a reincarnation of the Greek word, but the semantic parallel is perfect and should perhaps be used for supporting the idea that job1 and job2 are related.

Other than that, most of those who have dealt with job, have suggested approximately the same idea and believed that the verb job is sound imitative or sound symbolic, which in this case comes down to the same. As analogs or as the sources of job the following words have been offered: shog “jog along,” a dialectal variant of jog; chop; Irish gob “mouth, beak,” and French gob “lump” together with gobbet “fragment; lump of food” (cf. Engl. gobble “to swallow hurriedly”). At first, Skeat derived job from Celtic (at that time he in general overdid the influence of Celtic on English), but in the last edition of his dictionary (1910), he gave up the specious cognates and referred to such imitative verbs as chop, dab, and bob. However, he was not quite ready to give up the comparison between Engl. job and Irish gob.

Charles Mackay, the whipping boy of my blog, wrote several good books on the history of English and a fanciful etymological dictionary (1877) in which he traced hundreds of words to Irish Gaelic. He is easy prey for ridicule, and I try to mention him only when his pronouncements have to be refuted. This is one of such cases. Mackay derived job from the Irish noun ob “refuse.” In 2014, William Sayers considered a new etymology of job that in some way resembles Mackay’s, except that he began with Shelta gruber “work, job” and Irish obair “work.” (Shelta is the in-group language of itinerant Irish handymen.) I’ll skip some of Sayers’s combinations, because he mentions them only to conclude that they should be rejected. But some of his ideas are disappointing. Among them is the reference to slang being derived from thieves’ language. Obviously, he did not know Mackay’s etymology. After a circuitous travel through several languages he ended up offering the early Parisian slang word jobbe “fool” as the etymon of Engl. job. The French word goes back to the name of the biblical Job (from this name English has the noun jobation “reprimand, talking-to”).  He finished his excursus by the appeal: “…let us try to recapture some of the racy flavour of the word as used in Dr Johnson’s century” (the article was published in Notes and Queries; hence the British spelling of flavor). The flavor has been recaptured, but the etymology remained hidden. We are left wondering how a piece of French slang meaning “fool” became part of “low” English signifying “illicit affair.” In Sayers’s reconstruction, the ties between job, verb, and job, noun, have not been as much as mentioned.

“Friends give the afflicted Job a jobation.” Image credit: “The Patient Job” by Gerard Seghers. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

At the moment, French gob is treated in dictionaries as the most probable source of job, though no one can explain the substitution of j- for g-. To my mind, those who connect the noun and the verb and derive the noun from the verb are right. Besides, I also share the opinion that job is a member of the family made up of chop, jog, shog, and their likes. The root of Greek kópos belongs here too. The Slavic cognate of kópos is Russian kopat’ “to dig” (with related verbs elsewhere; stress on the second syllable) and, very probably, kapat’ “to drip” (stress on the first syllable). Consider also Dutch kappen “to cut, chop,” which was borrowed in this form into German. Kop, cap, hop, gob, and so forth are typical onomatopoeias or “sound symbolic” formations. (See also the post of June 10, 2015 in which the verb dig is discussed.) In English monosyllables, initial j– outside unquestionable borrowings from French, often characterizes expressive words, which are, unsurprisingly (as journalists like to say), of obscure origin. Jag, jog, jam (verb), jaunt, jig, and jump belong here. Job (verb) could of course be an arbitrary, “symbolic” alteration of gob, but, as likely, it could be a “rootless” independent formation.

In sum, the etymology of job will not appear as a mystery if we agree to derive the noun from the verb “to strike, peck,” as is done, for example, in dealing with the history of stint “to diminish” (originally “to shorten”). The noun job first meant “a piece of work; a temporary occupation,” and it has retained this sense. One can have no permanent work but several jobs. The word owes its world-wide popularity to American English. Amazingly, someone who is unemployed is called jobless (compare the noun joblessness), even though workless also exists but does not seem to be used too often. My job is done.

“Who said that rootless things cannot flourish?” Image credit: “Boletus Mushroom Nature Terrain Landscape Autumn” by Winsker. CC0 via Pixabay.

Featured Image Credit: “Figures Professions Work Funny Fun Career Job” by Alexas_Fotos. CC0 via Pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. Constantinos Ragazas

    Hello Anatoly,

    Of all the possible derivations for “job”, the one that is most closely related to it is the Greek “kopos”. Which by the way means “exhausting labor” (whether physical or mental).

    You write,

    “Of course, Engl. job cannot be a reincarnation of the Greek word [kopos], but the semantic parallel is perfect ”

    Why or why not a “derivation”? And why “semantic parallel”? Implying “not intersecting”? When we know there was (is) much crossbreeding between Greek and English?


  2. Carolanne Reynolds

    ” … in the 1820’s: … ”
    b/c plural, shd be: [ 1820s ]

  3. Constantinos Ragazas


    Just one more thought to my other thoughts in my first comment here on the Greek “kopos”.

    The Greek “kopos” may derive from the Greek “kopi” (oar).

    This makes sense since ancient boat rowing is likely the earliest organized well defined labor. Which would match well with the notion of “job”.

    Don’t you think?


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