Work and Words

It is said that we form our thoughts in language. It follows that words are important – that their meaning, changing through time and usage, also affects our thoughts.

The News

Last Friday's “jobs numbers” have left me thinking about words as well as about jobs. What is a job? Is it what we need? What we want?

Job creation last month (December, 2013) was the lowest in some time, and yet the unemployment rate went down. Why? Because fewer people were seeking jobs. Why? Because they are discouraged? Too old? Too young? Uneducated? Can survive some other way?

Yes. Yes to all of these and more. But we must also consider some of the employed: the working poor.

Employees of fast food outlets and big box stores typically earn the minimum wage and are hired as temporaries without benefits. Even though they work full time in their “temporary” position, their annual salary puts them below the poverty line. Their full-time job can't support a family. They survive with the help of food stamps, medicaid, and good luck. A company gets cheap labour and the taxpayer foots the bill for the small help that the working poor receive. The profits from this system go to (at best) shareholders or (more likely these days) to a small group of stakeholders.

The Writers' Almanac

Garrison Keillor ends his Writers' Almanac with a sign-off which feels like a sending-forth: “Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.” Because I hear the Writers' Almanac several times a week and have been doing so for years, Garrison's sign-off has lodged in my head, a touchstone for reflection.

I think about it more often than I hear it on the air. It takes on the form of a prescription, even a prayer.

I think about the order: be well, do good work, keep in touch.

First we must have health. We must have food and shelter; we must be able to survive.

Next – perhaps surprisingly – we need work. We must employ our God-given gifts for good, for making or accomplishing something, for making a difference, however small. This is our purpose. It is why we are here. It is what will bring meaning to our lives and comfort to our deathbed.

Finally, we must “keep in touch.”

I have struggled long with this one. Why is it last? How can we say that love, family, friendship and companionship, social and political action, and even faith and religion must come last? This seems to go against all teachings and norms.

But wait. Can a person who is not whole truly love another? Can a person who has yet to find meaning feed his family or bring energy to a friendship? Can he be a responsible citizen?

These are cruel thoughts. One could follow them into a judgment of the sad, the poor, and the simple. Thankfully, Pope Francis said, “Who am I to judge?”, so I can accept the cruelty of my thoughts as I accept the cruelty of nature, and move toward the lesson, toward what I have learned from Garrison's sending-forth: work is important.


So what is work?

Etymology, the study of words, can sometimes remind us of meanings which, although to all appearances lost, still hover ethereally at the fringes. I was surprised to find, for example, that a Greek word for work is ergon, from which we get urge. Can this be a clue? Is work an urge, something that we must do? Baudelaire said  “Work is less boring than amusing oneself”, calling into question the primacy of play.


In contrast, the etymology of job leads us to gob, a cartload, a piece of work. A piece of work that is low, mean, temporary, and lucrative. Petty, piddling work. A piece of chance work. The sense of job as work done for pay dates back to the 1650's.


Etymology can lead us through histories of meaning. Current usage can inform us about today's pressures and politics and give us perspective on our own thinking.

But all writers, consciously or not, try to re-shape words, to use them in ways which expand their meaning.

Drawing on the Greeks, Baudelaire, and Garrison Keillor, I would honour work as what we must do: use our gifts for good, however small. If we can feed our families through this work, so much the better. We are lucky indeed.

If (at least for the moment) we cannot, then perhaps we must find a job, a piece of work which is low but lucrative.

But I pray that as individuals and as a society we may see the difference. And I pray that more of us may find fulfillment in work. It will make a difference for humanity.