Whistle while you work it


“All the world is perpetually at work, only that our poor mortal lives should pass the happier for that little time we possess them.” — Temple

Most of us work. It’s what we do for much of our waking lives. In fact, the notion of work is so embedded in our psyche that the very word pervades all aspects of our lives — even when we’re at play. The word with so many definitions (it takes up several pages of the OED) has never been confined to just its core meanings of toil, labor and employment; more than representing simply the opposite of play, it embraces countless notions of intention and activity in as many different guises. Work takes a proud place in the Oxford Dictionaries’ list of the 1,000 most frequently used words. And recently it has begun to work its way idiomatically even further and more pervasively into the lingo. But let’s start with our more traditional understanding and use of the word.

“Fodder, a wand, and burdens, are for the ass; and bread, correction, and work, for a servant.” — Ecclesiasticus 33:24

Even in its core context — that of employment — work can refer to so many of aspects of its own self, showing off its versatility before it’s even left the workplace. “I walk to work” (the place where I work); “she brings work home” (the tasks or materials of her job); “he’s looking for work” (general employment); “shall we meet after work?” (the time we spend working); “there’s trouble at work” (the physical or interpersonal environment); “I enjoy my work” (the nature of my job).

“Work is the curse of the drinking classes.” — Oscar Wilde

Outside the workplace, work is ubiquitous in our daily lives and conversations. We work out problems; we work on a project. Things have a way of working themselves out, but activities and even people can be hard work. We work on our manners, we admire people who do good works, and when something works, it really works — literally, logistically, philosophically, romantically…  A work of art might work for you but not for me, and when we have some work done, it might be on our bodies or on our houses. I understand that it’s the work of someone else, and that he can sometimes work miracles. When Shakespeare’s Hamlet reflected that “what a piece of work is man,” he was remarking on mankind’s virtues; in the 21st century, being a piece of work is neither virtuous nor desirable.

The versatility of work seems boundless, as can its scope for ambiguity. When I get worked up, I might be excited, anxious or angry. Working the crowd can mean different things to the social networker, the orator, the magician, the marketeer, the rockstar or the game-show warm-up host. Working with others (outside the context of employment) is usually collaborative and cooperative, but it can describe a range of interpersonal activities — including teaching, mentoring, guidance, negotiation, compromise, and mere tolerance. “It works” can mean a world of things, as can the question “Do you work?”

Ya gots to work with what you gots to work with.
— Stevie Wonder

Working out, or a workout — that thing we do to keep our bodies fit and healthy — has the sound of modern usage, but curiously it’s been around for more than a century. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, workout the noun dates back to 1909, when it referred to a “‘boxing bout for practice,’ from work + out.” In the general sense of a “spell of strenuous physical exercise” it was attested by 1922. Work‘s ubiquity in our language is not a modern phenomenon; indeed, back in the days of Old English, it also meant fornication. Suite101 gives a succinct and accessible account of the word’s history, as excerpted here:

“The earliest meaning of work was to describe any kind of action involving effort or exertion. … In Old English work also had the meaning of fornication — a meaning that dissipated before the Middle English period. … It was used in theology in late Middle English to describe good or moral acts or deeds. It was also neutrally used to describe what a person (or thing) had to do in the future, be it a task or a function, “Fie upon this quiet life! I want work” (1590). … By late Middle English work could describe the style and workmanship of an object, ‘A rare clock of German worke’, and even a general characteristic effect, ‘heat had done its work on them by turns’ (1635). The term worker to describe a bee was first recorded from 1747, and the noun working-class from 1789. From  Middle English onwards work was used to describe a literary or musical composition. This extended by the late 17th century to an architectural or engineering structure. By the mid 16th century mathematicians had adopted the word work to mean the process of a calculation written out in full. Work was then borrowed by physicists in the middle of the 19th century to mean, “the operation of a force in producing movement”. In the early 20th century work out was used as boxing jargon to mean ‘strenuous physical exercise’.”

Fast forward a century, and work is still working its way into ever more aspects of our daily lives, at least linguistically.

Eating is one. A relatively modern turn of phrase — but I think one still confined to American shores — is what’s said to a waiter trying to take your plate at the end of a meal: “I’m still working on it.” (I’m not sure you would hear that sentence issued from the mouth of a dining Englishman.) We’re used to hearing about people “working with” certain forms or media in the creative arts: “The artist is working with cereal boxes and clay”; “the cinematographer is working with natural lighting”. But new to my ears is the use of this expression to describe the type of food you’re consuming. One of my colleagues often asks enthusiastically during our communal lunch hours: “What are you working with today?” And when my daughter tells her boyfriend that he really “went to work on that burrito,” she means he devoured it voraciously.

Dirty Dancing was all the rage in the ’80s; today the kids have a different way to describe their provocative booty-shaking. “Work it,” rapped Missy Elliot in 2002, and a couple of decades of “working it” on the dance floor have led our 4-letter protagonist not just into the world of twerking* (an alteration of work) but also along the path of sexual seduction. “Hey dude, I put in work last night” confides a hopeful college frat-boy to his sexiled* roommate; “he’s doing work,” observe his other envious friends. Little might they realize that their linguistic forebears were working along the same lines all those centuries ago.


*  twerk: to dance to popular music in a sexually provocative manner involving thrusting hip movements and a low, squatting stance. According to Katherine Martin of Oxford University Press, “we think the most likely theory is that [twerk] is an alteration of work, because that word has a history of being used in similar ways, with dancers being encouraged to ‘work it’.”

** sexile: to banish somebody, usually one’s roommate, from the room for the privacy to fornicate

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UPDATE: Here is a video of Helen Mirren “twerking it” for Harvard University students.

“Work It” by Missy Elliot

The hook:

Is it worth it, let me work it
I put my thing down, flip it and reverse it
I put my thing down, flip it and reverse it [backwards 2X]
If you got a big dick, let me search you
And find out how hard I gotta work you
I put my thing down, flip it and reverse it [backwards 2X]

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