The word job has a big job in our language.

Primary school teachers reinforce their pupils with “Good job!” stickers on homework assignments. When we meet somebody new, jobs are among our first questions. And monthly jobs reports have the power to shift political landscapes.

We land first jobs, which are often summer jobs. Told not quit our day jobs, we work odd jobs as we strive for dream jobs. We fill out job applications, read job descriptions, try to improve job satisfaction, and hope for job security. We fall prey to inside jobs or want our money back for hack jobs. We envy those with cushy jobs. We run from nut jobs and whack jobs who’ve just carried out bank jobs. We get nose jobs. Behind the bedroom door–well, I didn’t expect this introduction to be, um, a dirty job.

Our jobs put food in our mouths–and, etymologically, it turns out job may be even closer to our mouths than we might suspect.

"Job." Doodle by @andrescalo.
“Job.” Doodle by @andrescalo.


In spite of its big role in our lexicon and lives, job has a humble history.

The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology (ODEE) dates job back to 1557, when it referred to a “piece of work”: a iobb of werk, the dictionary cites. Ernest Weekley is helpful here, as he notes that such a job of work would have stood in contrast to work that is “continuous.”

The deeper origin is ultimately unknown, but the word may well be related to gob, which you probably best recognize in the plural, e.g., gobs of money.

This gob has been working since the 14th century, meaning a “piece,” “lump,” or “mass.” And it was also put to work as a “cartload” in the 1600s. Perhaps you can imagine a worker hauling some mound of material–perhaps stone or straw or whatever it is piled up in that preceding doodle–one load at a time until the job is done. Indeed, Walter Skeat cites the expression “to work by the gob.” Perhaps our equivalent today would be a task or a project.

By the 17th century, job was moving up the ladder, starting to signify work one has to do as part of his or her occupation. By the 19th century, job was referring to one’s actual position of employment.


Gob comes from the French gobe or goube, referring to a “mouthful.” The word, in turn, is from the verb gober, “to swallow” or “gulp.” Some dictionaries even gloss gober as “gobble,” which is most likely related as a frequentative form of gob with imitative influence, like a turkey’s gobble.

Gobbet (also a “lump,” though more specifically “a piece of raw flesh”) is related, too; it’s considered a diminutive of gobe. We saw this diminutive, which takes the form -et, in target. Other French borrowings like budget, bullet, and pocket feature it. A goblet, which we brought to our more medieval mouths for gulping, is so descended as well.

From gobe, etymologists propose a Gaulish root, *gobbo, meaning “beak” or “mouth” (Baumgartner & Menard). Cognates include the Gaelic gob, a “beak” or “bill,” and the Irish gob, a “bill” or a “mouth.”

Scottish and Northern English speakers gobbled up this Celtic-based root with a sense of humor, taking up gob as jocular term for “mouth,” as in a gobstopper. Do all these connections leave you a bit gobsmacked? Yep, the British expression means “smacked in the gob,” or “mouth.” Or perhaps you’ve shown the patience of Job in getting to the end? OK, that Job is completely unrelated.

In either case, I think I’ve done my job here.

m ∫ r ∫

3 thoughts on “job

  1. I was just about to say that the Welsh cognate of Gaelic ‘gob’ (beak, bill) and Irish ‘gob’ (bill, mouth) from the proposed
    Gaulish root, *gobbo would probably be ‘gwp’ (snout, mouth, face, countenance; bill, beak (of bird) but I just noticed that the dictionary defines ‘gwp’ as: Loan word, English ‘gob’ or Irish ‘gob’ (bird’s beak) so maybe it isn’t?

    (English) ‘gob’ is also a term from the mining industry:
    (a) The refuse thrown back into the excavation after removing the coal, mineral that has been partially or wholly removed; the waste left in old workings. Gob, empty space in coal-mine from which coal has been removed, also rubbish used for packing such a space; hillock, heap. It is called also goaf, goff, gobbing or ‘gob stuff’.
    (b) The process of packing with waste rock; stowing.

    It isn’t much of a semantic leap from ‘gob’ in the sense of waste rock, rubbish, hillock, heap to the ‘job’ of ‘cartload’ (your doodle is more of a ‘wheelbarrow’ to my BrE eyes).


  2. I appreciate your notes on gob’s connection to the mining industry. Indeed, it clarifies and contextualizes a “cartload” appropriate. I’m interested, too, in the case of the doodle, in how visual information interacts with our dialectical expectations.

    The particular provenance of “gwp” I would imagine to be tricky. On some level, perhaps we could consider it re-loaned, if it was taken up from English.


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