The Labo(u)rious Ramblings of a Pseudo-Linguist

A detail from Masaccio's Cacciata dei progenitori dall'Eden.
Detail from Masaccio's Cacciata dei progenitori dall'Eden.

As Labour Day approaches, I cannot help but ponder this seemingly innocuous sequence of letters making up the word “labour.” For starters, unlike our neighbors south of the 45th parallel, Canadians write “labour” with a “u” (much like colour/color, humour/humor, and many other similar words). The reason for this difference is that, in contrast to Americans, the rest of the English-speaking world tends to preserve the orthography of words appropriated from other languages—and the metric system, but that’s neither here nor there. So, the graphic layout of the word leaves a historical trace, an etymological sign (etymology: the study of the origin and historical development of a word, from ἔτυμον (étumon, “true sense”) and -λογία (-logía, “study of”), from λόγος (lógos, “word; explanation”). In this case, we have a French connection, hence labour, much like the letter order at the end of theatre/theater or centre/center—the fancy-schmancy linguistic term here is metathesis.

In French, Labour Day is called “Fête du Travail.” The French word travail, much like labour, migrated into English both in noun and verbal forms. The noun is defined as painful or laborious effort, tribulation or agony, and the labour of childbirth. The verb, intuitively, is defined as engaging in a painful or laborious effort or being in labour of childbirth (it is also connected to the word travel, but I shall leave that for another time).

As for Italian, the verb travagliare also exists, frowned upon by a petty few as a Gallicism, or worse, indicating a dialect of Southern origins. The truth is that travagliare is both archaic and aulic, a most Latinate construction. Dante, Petrarca, Ariosto, Manzoni—the usual authoritative authors—all use it, and even the 20th-century thinker Gobetti. The root, its etymology, is Latin, more precisely the Vulgar Latin tripaliare (verb), tripalium (noun) that comes from the Late Latin trēpālium, literally “three stakes.” The trēpālium was a torture instrument made up of three stakes to punish slaves: picture one vertical stake, with two diagonal ones crossing at its center. Let’s go back to the word “labour,” regardless of its dual spelling and semantic overlap with travail and torturing the oppressed.

The English word labour, then, has its roots in the French word labour (which also has the variant labeur), an archaic word rarely used nowadays, except perhaps for its adjectival and verb forms: laborieux (laborious) and labourer (to plow). Has the fact that one-third of the English lexicon has French origins ever been mentioned in debates surrounding anglicisms here in Quebec? *crickets chirping* We all know the answer to that. So, labor/labour came into English from Old French labor; it, in turn, derives from the Latin labor (“toil, exertion, hardship, suffering”) with the verb form labōrāre (“to toil, labor, work, suffer”). Through this genealogic dig, we can easily see the connection with the Italian words lavoro and lavorare.

One predictable transformation from Latin to Italian is the transformation of the letter “b” to “v.” Italian has this particular tendency, unlike Spanish that tends to maintain the “b.” For example, the Latin word for horse is caballus, caballo in Spanish, and cavallo in Italian. The “b” sound /b/ is called a voiced bilabial plosive stop, whereas /v/ is a voiced labiodental fricative. The change itself is called a “lenition” or a consonantal “weakening” (try mouthing the sounds in your mouth and pay attention to the mechanics at play, it’s pretty cool). So, to recap, labo(u)r/labor/laborious/labo(u)rer (English), labour/labeur/laborieux/labourer (French), lavoro/lavorare (Italian).

Now, in semantic terms, the constellation of meanings clustering around the word “labour” brings into its orbit concepts of physical effort, toil, suffering, and plowing. This covers one of the two modern meanings of the word, the other being the process of childbirth. Besides the apparent semantic connection of “hard physical work,” one can make out the difference between the expressions “this includes labour and parts” and “your wife is in labour.” The meaning of “labour” as “physical exertion of childbirth” is only attested in English as of 1590, whereas labour of birthe can be found in the early 15th century, which is also found in Old French. This is where things get exciting or laborious; it’s up to you. Now, this connection between plowing the land through toil and suffering and the process of childbearing and birth has, evidently, a biblical resonance. Let’s go back to the beginning, literally, to Genesis.

In Genesis (from Ancient Greek γένεσις (génesis, “origin, source, beginning, nativity, generation, production, creation”), we read of “The Expulsion of Eden” (3:16–19). After catching Adam and Eve slipping, God punishes them by first telling Eve that she will experience pangs during childbearing and pain during childbirth (among other things that will be overlooked for the sake of brevity), and then tells Adam, which means “(the one formed from the) ground” (Hebrew adamah “ground”), that he curses the ground from whence he came, introducing both mortality and labour.

For epic purposes, here is the King James version (1611), which—by the way—has had a more significant impact on the English language than Shakespeare (1564–1616): “Unto the woman he said, ‘I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children’” (16) and then unto Adam he said, “cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life; (…) and thou shalt eat the herb of the field; In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.” (17–19).

The word “labour” is noticeably absent, and the expression “in sorrow” is repeated twice: “in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children” and “in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life” (emphases added). Conversely, we have an implicit understanding of labour with “the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread” and “bring forth children.” What about the Latin Vulgate then, the late-4th-century translation of Jerome, deemed official by the Catholic Church in 1592? God said to Eve: “Multiplicabo ærumnas tuas, et conceptus tuos: in dolore paries filios,” and unto Adam: “maledicta terra in opere tuo: in laboribus comedes ex ea cunctis diebus vitæ tuæ (…) in sudore vultus tui vesceris pane, donec revertaris in terram de qua sumptus es: quia pulvis es et in pulverem reverteris” (emphases added).

For Eve, we have a very rare term: “aerumnas,” the accusative form of aerumna, with a range of meanings from need and want to toil and hardship, and distress, tribulation, and calamity (Cicero uses it to describe the labours of Hercules). This is followed by “conceptus,” as in to conceive children, “in dolore paries” (you will give birth in pain). As for Adam, we have “opere,” the ablative declension of opus (work, need, art, workmanship), and “in laboribus” (in labour). Alright, so we have our Latin labor, but what about the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, the Septuagint?

Let’s focus on Adam first. Interestingly, we have both labour and sorrow: ἔργοις (ergon, “work,” where we get the term “ergonomics”) and λύπαις (lúpē, which can express a scale of negative experiences, ranging from inner sadness to physical pain). What about Eve? Here’s the excerpt: “πληθύνων πληθυνῶ τὰς λύπας σου, καὶ τὸν στεναγμόν σου, ἐν λύπαις τέξῃ τέκνα” (while multiplying, I will multiply your sorrows and your groanings, in sorrows you shall bring forth children); readers may recognize λύπας and λύπαις, two forms of lúpē.

So, what can be gathered from all of this? Well, for starters, we have a better understanding of the etymological and semantic connection between labour as childbearing and work (think production and reproduction), but this is not limited to physical suffering. The divine figure of Genesis metes out justice by introducing mortality and suffering and labour obligation for both Adam and Eve. (This also explains why Dante puts usurers in Hell, more precisely in those violent against God in art, since they do not work for a living.)

If read with a political lens, the story of their disobedience takes on an interesting twist. The divine figure of Genesis forces them into existing under a social contract wherein they had no say whatsoever in establishing its stipulations; in sum, they had no agency. The social contract they are coerced into presupposes achieving goals that rational individuals should desire: freedom from labour and immortality. The only thing Adam and Eve can do out of their own free will is to disobey, a most irrational act at first glance. Their disobedience is a revolutionary act, whereby they can express their liberty by committing an irrational but necessary action. Despite all the privileges of being in the Garden, they were not free. The cost of this freedom, of this self-autonomy, is labour.


Interested in further reflections on labour? Pick up a copy of C.I.A.O.’s first zine in our shop. All profits from zine sales go to the Immigrant Workers Centre.

Author: Sandro-Angelo de Thomasis was born and raised in Montréal, Québec, Canada. He is a faculty member at The Juilliard School's Liberal Arts Department where he teaches French, Italian, and ESL classes. He specializes in Dante studies, contemporary Italian poetry, and translation. He has a BA in Western Society and Culture from Concordia University’s Liberal Arts College (Montréal, Canada), and an MA, MPhil, and a PhD (2021) in Italian Studies from Yale University (New Haven, CT). He also attended Oxford on a dissertation fellowship (2018–2019). Sandro serves on the editorial board of the second tome of Those Who from Afar Look Like Flies (University of Toronto Press, forthcoming), a bilingual anthology of contemporary Italian poetry that contains several of his translations and critical essays on Andrea Inglese, Lorenzo Durante, Antonio Riccardi, Riccardo Held, and Daniele Poletti. In addition, he has written on Lorenzo Durante’s Quarantore, a rewriting of Mallarmé’s “Tombeau pour Anatole,” in Deconstructing the Model in 20th and 21st-century Italian Experimental Writings (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2019). Other publications of his can be found in the Journal of Italian Translation and Italica. He is currently translating selected works of the liberal anti-fascist intellectual Piero Gobetti for Agincourt Press.

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