A Worker's Etymology

David Joez Villaverde

When I'm asked what do you do?

I like to reply I write poems,

a reply which is always insufficient

for the type of person who asks that question.

No what do you do for work?

Work, from the Latin urgere, to compel,

to press, to bear down upon. Work, the cognate

of the Gothic wrikan, the old English wrecan,

to persecute, from which the word wreak derives,

to inflict vengeance. What do you do for a job?

Job perhaps from the Middle English gobbe

as in gobbeshite, or from the Parisian slang jobbe,

a fool, but more likely from the Middle English jobben,

to thrust, to peck at, a word whose origins

arise from the collapse of feudalism

and the forced movement of peasants to the mines.

A word Samuel Johnson defined as vulgar,

as a low, mean, lucrative busy affair.

A definition we still recognize today

as in Lula really got jobbed by Bolsonaro.


I wish I had the courage to answer

this question with anything

other than the literal truth.

I wish I didn't care

what vacuous strangers think of me.

I wish I wasn't afraid to say

I work as a factotum at a burning plantation

that is rapidly sinking into the bog.

Anything other than the thankless

fact of my menial labor. Labor,

from the Old French labour, toil,

suffering, from the Latin labor, hardship,

pain, fatigue. Once someone asked

if I had read Lunch Poems,

if I stole time to write poetry.

Truth be told I don't.

I am tired of trying to make myself

a perfect engine of productivity.

I'm tired of thinking of the poem

as an emotional machine made of words.

I'm tired of the language of capital

infecting everything I care about.

I wish I could quit

but I need to eat.

I wish I could say 

I don't like my boss.

Boss from the Dutch baas, master,

a loanword from Dutch slavers. 

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