Arrant Pedantry

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An Etymological Workout

If you’re like me and are still trying to get back into the swing of things after a nice holiday break, you might be having a little trouble focusing on work. You might even be suffering from a mild case of ergophobia, or the fear of work. So here’s some etymology to distract you.

Work comes from the Proto-Germanic *werkam, which in turn comes from the Proto-Indo-European *wérǵom, ultimately from the root *werǵ ‘to make’. In Ancient Greek, *wérǵom gave rise to ergon, which gives us energy, from the prefix en- ‘at’ + erg ‘work’ (‘at work, active’), as well as terms like ergonomics and ergative (and, yes, ergophobia). It also apparently gives us the name George, a name meaning ‘farmer’ or ‘husbandman’, which comes from ge ‘earth’ + ergon ‘work’, literally ‘earth worker’.

Forms of ergon also gave us surgery (from earlier chirurgerie, from the Greek kheir ‘hand’ + ergon ‘work’), metallurgy (‘metal work’), liturgy (‘public work’ or ‘public worship’), thaumaturge (‘wonder worker’), dramaturge (‘drama worker’), demiurge (‘public worker’, from a different root meaning ‘public’ than the one in liturgy), “argon” (from the prefix a- ‘not’ + ergon ‘work’, because argon is inert), lethargy (from leth ‘to forget’ + argos ‘not working, idle’), allergy (‘other working’), and synergy (‘working together’).

A variant of the PIE *werǵ, *worg, also produced the Ancient Greek organon, meaning ‘instrument’ or ‘tool’, which eventually made its way into English as organ (meaning the musical instrument, the body parts, and other senses). From this we also get the verb organize, which originally meant ‘to put in working order’, as well as other derived forms like organic and organism.

It also gave us orgy, which originally meant ‘secret rites’, probably from the sense of some kind of work performed for one’s gods. The Online Etymology Dictionary says: “OED says of the ancient rites that they were ‘celebrated with extravagant dancing, singing, drinking, etc.,’ which gives ‘etc.’ quite a workout.” (This root did not, however, give us the word orgasm.)

The Proto-Indo-European *wérǵom also yielded the Germanic bulwark (literally ‘bole work’ or ‘tree work’), which originally meant a defensive wall made of logs. This word was borrowed into English either from Middle Dutch or from Middle High German. It was also borrowed into French and became boulevard, with an anomalous change from /k/ to /d/ at the end. It eventually came to mean a tree-lined street and was then borrowed back into English.

And, of course, it also yields the English wright, meaning ‘worker’ or ‘maker’, and the archaic wrought, which is an old past-tense form of work and not a past-tense form of wreak as some mistakenly believe.

So that one little root from Proto-Indo-European has been pretty productive. I should probably try to be too.

2 Responses to An Etymological Workout

  1. Mara K says:

    Is it common for “work” and “worship” to be closely etymologically related? I see it here in your Greek, but they’re also homonyms in liturgical Hebrew (avodah means both “work” and “prayer”). For that matter, are they related in English, and is that Greek’s fault?

    • I’m not sure how common that is cross-linguistically. But even though they look like they might be related in English too, the word worship actually comes from worth + -ship, originally meaning the condition of being worthy and then coming to mean the feeling of reverence for someone worthy and then the act of showing that reverence.

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