Labor Day is much more than a holiday: it’s a cultural package. There are special Labor Day crafts, games, activities, and traditions; Labor Day recipes, treats, drinks, and desserts; and of course Labor Day parades, parties, concerts, and festivals. And then there is a “Labor Day language”, i.e. a subset of vocabulary used a lot in the days preceding and culminating on the first Monday in September (US).
Here is a sampler of the language of Labor Day along with its linguistic baggage:
career: Etymologically, your career is more closely related to your car than your job. The word career derives from the Latin carrum, “cart” (hence car). Carrum gave us the Medieval Latin (via) carraria (= carriageway), which then changed into the French carrière, at first signifying “race course”. From “race course”, the meaning shifted and broadened out to signify “a run at full speed”, before it assumed the sense of “a course of action” and, currently, “an occupation through the course of one’s life”; in other words, a profession.
job: The origins of job are obscure. It is believed to derive from the Middle English jobbe (think gob, lump), as in jobbe of worke, literally “a piece of work”, i.e. a task. Over time, the phrase jobbe of worke was reduced to plain job, which gradually came to mean “paid work”, i.e. employment.
labor: On the other hand, there is nothing mysterious about the derivation of the word labor: It goes back to the Latin noun labor (= toil), possibly akin to the Latin verbs labare (= to totter, to give way, to be about to fall) and labi (= to slip and fall). It looks like, originally, the meaning of labor was more specific and emotively charged than in its modern sense, which is basically the Latinate lexical alternative to work: The ancestral labor signified the burden of toil, a burden under which the worker may totter, slip, and fall.
salary: Work can be insipid, but never the “getting paid for it” part, right? At least that’s what etymology teaches us: The word salary derives from the Latin salarium (, which was the allowance given to Roman soldiers for the purchase of salt. As in the case of career, again, we have a broadening of meaning from “regular payment to buy salt” to “regular payment for services rendered.”
work: The word work is descended from old and distinguished linguistic stock: It goes all the way back to an Indo-European ancestor *werg-/*worg- , which has also given us the modern Dutch werk, modern German Werk, Swedish verk, Greek ergon (= work) and organon (= tool), Armenian gorc (= work), etc. The form wrought, the obsolete past participle of the Middle English verb werken, applies to limited adjectival usage (e.g. wrought silk, overwrought) and set phrases (e.g. to get wrought up). The same holds for the cognate wright, an archaic word for “worker” and “craftsman”, which is now restricted to compounds, as in playwright, shipwright, wheelwright, etc.
Happy Labor Day, everyone!
Merriam-Webster Online: http://www.m-w.com