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Making language work for workers

September 5 marked Labour Day and if your labour is merely laborious, take solace that this was the original connotation of the word. When the word first surfaced in English in the 14th century, its sole sense was as “arduous toil”; by the late 16th century the word was used to refer to the rigours of childbirth. It was only in 1776 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 ever y nation is the fund which originally supplies it with all the necessaries and conveniences of life, which it annually consumes.”

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 labour organizations, and in 1885 Labour Day was celebrated in many U.S. industrial centres.

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 was 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.” The OED relates that by the end of the 16th century the word acquired a slang sense as a term of abuse or depreciation applied to persons: “A mean, l ow, ‘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. It 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 paraphrase Paul Simon, “There must be fifty ways to lose your job,” such as “rightsize,” “can,” “let go,” “deselect,” “axe,” and “rif ” (short for reduction in force). If you bemoan these 20th century euphemisms for job dismissal, you can take small comfort that the euphemistic process started even earlier. In Dickens’s 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.”

I trust you enjoyed a non-laborious Labour Day. Howard Richler’s latest book is Can I Have a Word With You? Contact him at



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