Making language work for workers
September 2nd marks Labour Day and if your labour is solely laborious, take solace that this was the original connotation of the word. When the word first surfaces in English in the 14th century, its only sense was as “arduous toil” and by the late 16th century the word was used to refer to the rigours of childbirth. It was only in 1776 that it that its main sense today of work done in order to obtain material wants and needs surfaced in Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations: “The annual labour of every nation is the fund which originally supplies it with all the necessaries and conveniencies of life, which it annually consumes.”
More than a century after the first Labour Day observance, there remains some doubt as to who first proposed the holiday for workers. Some records indicate that Peter J. McGuire, general secretary of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners and a co-founder of the American Federation of Labor, was first in suggesting a day to honour those “who from rude nature have delved and carved all the grandeur we behold." Many people however, credit a machinist named Matthew Maguire as the holiday’s founder.
In any case, the first Labour Day holiday was celebrated on Tuesday, September 5, 1882, in New York City, In 1884, the first Monday in September was selected as the holiday, and the Central Labor Union urged similar organizations in other cities to follow the example of New York and celebrate a “workingmen's holiday" on that date. The idea spread with the growth of labor organizations, and in 1885 Labor Day was celebrated in many American industrial centers.
In Canada, on April 15, 1872, the Toronto Trades Assembly organized the first North American “workingman's demonstration.” Some 10,000 Torontonians turned out to watch a parade and to listen to speeches calling for abolition of the law which decreed that “trade unions were criminal conspiracies in restraint of trade.” On July 23, 1894, the Canadian Government enacted legislation making Labour Day, the first Monday of September of each year into a national holiday.
The labour movement appropriated some common English words and gave them specific work-related senses. The use of “strike” to mean “withdraw labour, ” developed in the mid 18th century and is first recorded in The Annual Register in 1768: “A body of sailors...proceeded...to Sunderland.., and at the cross there read a paper, setting forth their grievances... After this they went on board the several ships in that harbour, and struck (lowered down) their yards, in order to prevent them from proceeding to sea.”
The word “scab” is first noted in the 13th century and referred to a “disease of the skin” and the OED relates that by the end of the 16th century it acquired a slang sense as a term of abuse or depreciation applied to persons: “A mean, low, ‘scurvy’ fellow; a rascal, scoundrel, occasionally applied to a woman. ” By the end of the 18th century this negative sense was extended to refer to a person who refuses to join a strike or who takes over the work of a striker.
“Picket” also has been extended in meaning. and comes from the military sense of a small detached body of troops, sent out to watch for the approach of the enemy or its scouts . Ultimately, the word comes from the French piquet which referred to a wooden stake driven into the ground.
To paraphase Paul Simon, “There must be fifty ways to lose your job such as “rightsize,” “deselect,” “rif” (short for reduction in force) and being a victim of “involuntary attrition.” If you bemoan these 21th century euphemisms for job dismisssal, you can take small comfort that the euphemistic process started even earlier. In Dickens’ Pickwick Papers a character states “I wonder what old Fogg ‘ud say if he knew it, I should get the sack, I s’pose- eh? ” This expression goes back to the days when workmen had to provide their own tools that were kept in a bag at the employer’s workshop. When you were given back your sack it meant you were dismissed. Even the seemingly non-euphemistic “fire” came into American English in the late 19th century as a punning alternate to “discharge.”
Enjoy a non-laborious Labour Day
Howard's latest book is How Happy Became Homosexual and other mysterious semantic shifts.