Etymology of Work

Work is defined by most dictionaries as some kind of activity that involves physical and/or mental effort to accomplish some kind of result. Usually this result is income.

It can also be used as a verb when you want to explain that something is functioning properly, such as in the phrase: it works.


Work as a noun comes from the Old English weorc; work the verb comes from the Old English word wyrcan, which is also related to wircan. Let’s take a closer look at these words.

Wyrcan is derived from the Common Germanic wurkijana (meaning to make or to do work) which in turn is derived from werǵ (means to make), a Proto-Indo-European word. Wyrcan is an Old English verb that can mean a number of things, such as: do, build, cause, make or accomplish.

Wircan is a Mercian word. The Kingdom of Mercia (an Anglo-saxon kingdom) existed 1500 years ago; its last king was Ceolwulf II. The word wircan is cognate with the Old Frisian werkia and means to set in motion.

Work as a noun descends directly from the Old English worc and weorc, meaning work.

Work is Torture: Truth or Myth?

A lot of people believe that the word work is etymologically tied with suffering, torture, etc. While this isn’t exactly true, it’s also not completely false. There is a small grain of truth in it because the Latin word for work, tripaliare comes from the Latin word tripalium.

A tripalium was an instrument of torture with three spikes. People were also burned alive on it. As you can imagine, this wasn’t exactly the most pleasant thing in the world. The English word, however, does not descend from tripaliare. Some examples of languages that still use a form of tripaliare include Portuguese (trabalho), Spanish (trabajo) and French (travail).


Barnhart, Robert K., ed., Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology, H.W. Wilson Co., 1988.,. “Appendix:Proto-Indo-European/Werǵ- – Wiktionary“. N.p., 2016. Web. 29 Feb. 2016.