We Need New Words for Work
I’m cracking the word “work” into dozens of new words.
I’ve “worked” fifteen years in business, education, restaurants, on a farm, as a software developer, as a startup founder, as a writer, musician and freelancer. The English language lumps this mass of diverse activities into the grab-all catch-phrase “work”. What if we had words for different types of work? How might that help us understand the nature of our actions better?
What would it look like to crack “work” into a list of more precise words? One place to start is looking at how other languages split our concepts into multiple words. Ancient Greek, for example, has five different, precise words for our “love”:
- philia - brotherly love for one’s family
- agape - universal love, charity. in Greek Christianity love of God for man and man for God
- philautia - self-love
- xenia - hospitality or love given to guests
- eros - erotic sexual love
More precise words for love enable the Ancient Greeks to understand their own emotions with more clarity. A lack of words has practical consequences. Our words create our perception of the world. To take just one example, many countries have instituted a 40-hour “work” week. Imagine if we had specific words. Would we have a 60-hour “speerk” week and a 20-hour “merk” week? Language has the power to be a precision tool. The word “work” is like a hammer. Every problem becomes a nail.
New Words to Crack Open the Word “Work”
Today I’m cracking open the word “work” and inventing new ones to replace it. To show a relationship between them, I end all of my new words with “rk”.
- Speerk: Requiring body movement and relatively low frontal-lobe function. Waiters, cooks (in their day-to-day cooking) and farm laborers engage in speerk. While physically exhausting, the energy of movement enables you, in my experience, to speerk much longer hours than merking (see below for definition). Speerk combines speed and work.
- Abstrerk - An architect might engage in abstrerk: picturing abstract problems, how to organize a building. A software developer who isn’t coding at the moment - but instead architecting a complex IT system is also abstrerking. An interior designer might abstrerk about how a space could be organized in a new way.
- Merk - Mathematical problem-solving demanding extremely high frontal-lobe activity. Many forms of computer programming also require high merking activity, although not all of them, especially front-end development.
- Creark - Completing his commission for the feast of the magi, monks and observers called out Leonardo Da Vinci for disappearing for hours and even days from his contract, or, at other times, standing near the painting looking at it and appearing to daydream. When confronted, Da Vinci explained that his observers were thinking in the wrong category of work! Without knowing the word, Da Vinci explained that ‘crearking’ requires a different approach than the day-labor the monks and farmers observing him were used to doing.
- Telepherk - Telephone work requiring communication over the phone, often explanations and discussions without visual aids, requiring telepherkers to turn images into words, e.g. explaining to a customer where to update his credit card information. Requires a significant amount of energy to communicate over and over again.
- Socierk - Leading a conference, hosting a get-together, organizing a group for a trip - these all require socierk. Socierk is social management. Leadership is a form of socierk. Socierk can be done for many hours for small activities. Big social decisions can require a kind of social crearking and may entail periods of solitude in order to clear one’s head and find one’s way to a social management decision.
- Mecherk - Mechanical work, e.g. on an assemblyline. This type of work requires a medium-level amount of cognitive work. It is a draining mishmash of repetitive tasks
- Proberk - Fixing a motorcycle (the art of motorcycle maintenace) or debugging a web application are examples of proberking.
- Wrirk - Writing, drawing, and similar activities which one often must do alone, and require high levels of individual attention and focus.
- Werkeln - Departing slightly from the pattern of ‘rk’ endings (moving it instead to the middle), I’m using the German word “werkeln”. Werklen in German means “to potter around”, to try things, to play with fixes. Coding a website in HTML or CSS is a form of “werkeln”. It doesn’t require abstrerking or merking, but rather flows in a state of pottering around, playing with fixes, moving objects around until they look good or feel right.
- Practerk - Learning to play the violin, or to play a piece of music on the violin, or piano, or tuba, bass, etc. - or any other type of work that requires a great deal of repetitive concentration. It’s different in this sense from crearking or abstrerking - while highly concentrated, you are also just doing highly complex repitition over and over again.
- Grok - This is already a word in programming circles, and is an example of exactly the inventiveness I’d like us to undertake. To “Grok” means to have worked at and learned something so well, to understand so intuitively, that it’s become a part of you.
An amusing example of confusion about different types of work - in this case crearking versus speerking - comes from the Renaissance. Walter Isaacson describes it in his biography of Leonardo Da Vinci,
“On other days, nothing would be painted. According to the account of a priest, ‘Leonardo would remain in front of the painting for one or two hours and contemplate in solitude, examining and criticizing to himself the figures that he had created.’ Then there were dramatic days that combined his penchant for procrastination. As if caught by whim or passion, he would arrive suddenly in the middle of the day, ‘climb the scaffolding, seize a brush, apply a brush stroke or two to one of his figures, and suddenly depart.’ Leonard’s procrastination led to amusing tales, such as the time the church prior became frustrated and complained. “He wanted [DaVinci] never to lay down his brush, as if he were a laborer hoeing the Prior’s garden,” Vasari wrote. When Leonardo was summoned by the Duke, they ended up having a discussion of hhow creative work (crearking) occurs. Sometimes it requires going slowly, pausing, even procrastinating. This allows ideas to marinate, Leonardo explained. Intuitinon needs nurturing. ‘Men of lofty genius sometimes accomplish the most when they work least,’ he told the duke.”
– Walter Isaacson, Leonardo DaVinci
Words are the beginning of how we structure the world around us. No wonder, then, that our grab-bag catch-all “work” has led us to structure our world blind to these different categories. We institute a 40-hour-work-week, when speerking we might be able to work longer and merking and crearking we might need to work fewer hours (or switch to other activities).
Harvesting broccoli, bartending, solving computer science problems, managing people, writing a book - all of these activities (all of which I have done at different stages of my career) are so different for our bodies and our minds that it’s bizarre that we lump them all as the same activity called “work.” The diversity of these activities deserve diverse words, rules, expectations, work hours - maybe even legal standing.
Unfortunately even today many organizations are still led and organized like the hoe-wielding churchman who confronted DaVinci. The industrial revolution led to an even greater standardization of work. For mecherking this made sense. How much productivity could we increase if we had a better vocabulary for categories of work?
All philosophy begins with defining one’s terms. Let’s invent new words to help us understand the nature of the diverse activities we’ve blindly lumped together into the one catch-all grab-bag word “work.”