The history behind the language of work

Image of The Wage Slave's Glossary
Author: Joshua Glenn
Publisher: Biblioasis (2011)
Binding: Paperback, 136 pages

Kai Ryssdal: This next three-and-a-half minutes of the broadcast are for all you "clockless workers," grinding away in the countless "cube farms" out there.

If you need a translation, I direct you to a new book called "The Wage Slave's Glossary." It's a new collection of terms about work and the workplace. Joshua Glenn's one of the co-authors. Welcome to the program.

Joshua Glenn: Thank you.

Ryssdal: Why write this book? I mean, we've got dictionaries all over the place.

Glenn: Our previous book was "The Idler's Glossary," and that was a collection of terms that were celebrating a certain style of life: the idler's way of life, where you don't let work define who you are and what you do. And this one is looking at the other side of that coin, which is the fact that so many of us work at jobs where we don't have very much control over how we do it or when we do it or what we're doing, even.

Ryssdal: Run me through some of the definitions, some of your favorite key phrases in this dictionary, would you?

Glenn: I'm very interested in all these words that come from the workplace that people use to describe themselves. For example, the word "downtime." It was a mid-century term that meant time when a machine is out of action or unavailable for use. And today, of course, this means that human beings who aren't working are compared to machines that being serviced, or robots that are being recharged. And the worst thing of all, is that many of us now use "downtime" to describe our own weekends and vacations.

We look at a lot of corporate jargon, of course, things like the "clockless worker," "loyalty time," "flexibilization" -- these kind of sinister euphemisms for bad things that corporations like to do. "Clockless worker" being somebody's who's willing to ignore what the clock says and just keep working; "loyalty time" being another word for unpaid overtime. Even the word "boss" actually comes from Dutch plantations; a work boss was somebody who was in charge of, the overseer of the slaves on the plantation. So the fact that we've now come to use that in a completely, almost admiring way -- it's no longer a pejorative -- says a lot about how much we've forgotten about how work has developed over the years.

Ryssdal: It's funny that we have so many words relating to and about and of this place where we spend, you know, a third of our lives. It's kind of interesting that we don't explore that more.

Glenn: Yeah. There's a lot of ideas about the nature of work hidden in all of that. For example, there used to be a term in the 18th century called the "after-dinner man," which was somebody who went back to work after they'd eaten their dinner. And of course at the time, that was considered a very strange thing to do -- dinner time's when you're supposed to be done with work, why would you go back? Either you're unhealthily addicted to work or you have too much of it. And of course today, we're all after-dinner men and we think nothing of the people who open their laptop after dinner and finishing up a Powerpoint or sending out some work emails. But once upon a time, that was a pathetic individual who was the after-dinner man.

Ryssdal: Although it occurs to me that though you and I are having an interesting discussion about all these words that people use for work, there are 14 million people who don't have jobs who would love to be required to flip on a laptop after dinner or something, you know?

Glenn: Well I don't know if they would love that, but that they would love to have a job. Once upon a time, there was a quite stark distinction between an artisan and a hireling, or a servant. And the artisan was somebody who could direct their own work, who could come and go as they pleased, who wasn't told how to do what they did. A hireling or a servant was somebody who couldn't do any of those things. Today, of course, most of us are in the latter category; most of us who have managers or bosses are pretty much told what to do and how to do it. The book is not against working, per se; it doesn't say that somehow magically we'd all have to do nothing. But it does suggest that perhaps there's other ways that things could be organized besides, you know, one guy is your manager and the other person is the worker.

Ryssdal: Yeah. My favorite is "GTFBTW," which we can't actually say on the radio, but you can look it up here in our excerpt. Josh Glenn is the co-author of the book called "The Wage Slave's Glossary." Josh, thanks a lot.

Glenn: Thanks for having me.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.
Image of The Wage Slave's Glossary
Author: Joshua Glenn
Publisher: Biblioasis (2011)
Binding: Paperback, 136 pages

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