15 words for when ’employee’ just doesn’t deliver
Deliveroo might be making headlines with their creative avoidance of the word ‘employee’, but here at Oxford Dictionaries we know that inventing euphemisms (and dysphemisms) to refer to workers and their jobs is nothing new. Let’s take a look at some imaginative words for employees already in our dictionaries.
Grunts and shiny bums
Most people will be familiar with the word breadwinner, which occurs over 2,000 times in our Oxford English Corpus and refers to “a person who earns money to support their family, typically the sole one”. This word dates back to the early 19th century, and derives from the idea of bread as representing the earnings of a family (a concept that is also linked to the words lord and lady, as explained here).
Older still is the word extern: as an adjective meaning “external”, this word has been in English since at least the mid 16th century, coming from Latin via French, and as a noun since the early 17th century. One of these noun senses refers to “a student participating in a temporary training programme in a workplace”: it’s a parallel term to the more familiar intern, meaning “a student or trainee who works, sometimes without pay, in order to gain work experience or satisfy requirements for a qualification”.
Aside from giving us 9-to-5 workers something to look forward to, what do Fridays have to do with the workforce? Thanks to Daniel Defoe’s novel Robinson Crusoe, published in 1719, man Friday is used to refer to “a male personal assistant or servant”. By 1928, a female equivalent, girl Friday, had emerged to refer to “a female assistant, especially a junior office worker”.
Historically, a journeyman was “a trained worker who is employed by someone else”, though nowadays it is more commonly used to mean “a worker or sports player who is reliable but not outstanding” instead. But what sorts of journeys did the first journeymen go on? Journey here is not actually connected to traversing great distances at all: it refers to a very old sense of journey meaning “a day’s work”, and gives its name here because the journeyman was no longer bound by indentures but was paid by the day.
Instead of being free to work as and when you please, you may find yourself stuck in an office day after day. It’s generally agreed that this is not the most glamorous life, an opinion that’s reflected in some of the terms used to describe clerical workers. In Australia and New Zealand, such employees might be termed shiny bums (or, less politely, shiny arses); this is an allusion to the well-worn seats of their trousers. In North America the term desk jockey—playing somewhat ironically on the more hip and exciting disc jockey—might be used for the same group. Even putting your nose to the grindstone won’t necessarily help you escape insult, as this may earn you the epithet of wonk, meaning “a studious or hard-working person”. It can also be used to refer to a person who takes an excessive interest in minor details of political policy. The word seems to have originated in nautical slang in the 1920s, where it referred to an inexperienced or incompetent sailor.
Like sailor wonks, those considered unskilled might be called hirelings, a word with a history stretching back around 1,000 years, although the contemptuous implication is somewhat newer. Grunt, meaning the “characteristic low gruff sound made by a hog”, dates back to the early 17th century, but over the 20th century came to refer to “a low-ranking soldier or unskilled worker” as an alteration of ground, ultimately from ground man—an unskilled railway worker who had not yet progressed to lineman.
The world of work
A little bit further afield, Hindi has loaned Indian English the words babu and chaprasi to describe office workers. Babu—from bābū meaning “father”—can be used as a respectful form of address for a man, particularly one who is well-educated, but caries an additional sense of “an office worker; a clerk”. Chaprasi is used more specifically to mean “a junior office worker who carries messages” and comes from the Hindi word caprās, denoting the badge worn by messengers or orderlies.
For those whose work is a bit more hands-on, the word khalasi, used in South Asian English, may be more appropriate: this word comes from Urdu ḵalāṣī, ḵalāšī and means “a manual worker, especially a docker, porter, or sailor”.
One of the most famous manual workers of all time was the Russian coal miner Aleksei Grigorevich Stakhanov (1906–1977). In the former Soviet Union, he was famed and revered for his legendary levels of productivity, to the point that Stakhanovite came to refer to an exceptionally hard-working or zealous person, and earned Aleksei his place in history, and in the pages of our dictionary. And there aren’t many humble workers who can say that.