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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

workaholic

(1980’s | therapese? journalese? | “drudge,” “drone”)

Was there an old word for this? See the best I can do above, and it’s not very close. You could say someone was tied to his desk, maybe even “deskbound,” but a noun? It seems to me that we missed an opportunity to talk about “stay-at-work dads” when we started to talk about “stay-at-home moms,” but I don’t think that expression was used much before 1980 anyway.

This word seems to have marshaled itself and marched into the language in the late seventies, although the OED and the 2008 edition of Partridge trace it back to 1968, and I’ll admit I found a few instances in Google Books from before 1975, but not many. It seems to have been the first word to adopt the “-aholic” suffix from “alcoholic”; there have been many others, but few with the same staying power. To my ear, only “shopaholic” and “chocoholic” have anything like the same frequency of use. (Here’s an example of a fellow blogger having some fun with the construction.) There could be a new one coming along any day now, of course — that’s part of the fun of watching language evolve. One linguist gave “-holic” as an example of “a pseudo-affix attached to bases” (Katamba, “English Words,” 2nd ed., Routledge, 2005). According to urbandictionary.com, it is permissible to use “holic” by itself, with listeners depending on context to determine which variety is intended.

The noteworthy thing about “holic,” whether suffix or word, is that it doesn’t mean anything, yet we grasp it immediately. When “workaholic” began to appear in the mainstream press around 1975, it was almost never glossed and only sometimes placed in quotation marks. You were just supposed to know what it meant, and I daresay most people did. James J. Kilpatrick decried the “holic” phenomenon as early as 1985, and Follett’s Modern American Usage is no more complimentary. (Follett blames journalists, not therapists, for the rise of “workaholic” and its cousins.) Those who care about English usage must cringe at least a little at these weird words, formed by breaking another word at an unintelligible point — there is really no excuse, etymological or otherwise, for treating “alcohol-ic” as if it were “alc-oholic.” Fowler’s is more forgiving, calling “aholic” a “useful and productive word element, whose progress in the language is to some extent a reflection of social preoccupations.” Nothing new under the sun.

Ever since its dawning, the word has had two related but distinct meanings: someone who is addicted to work, to the detriment of health, relationships, etc. vs. someone who just works all the time without noticeable ill effects. When they called Jimmy Carter a workaholic in 1976, it usually had a complimentary tinge, but around the same time it was also used to describe neglectful husbands and office nuisances who took on too many tasks and gummed up the works for everyone else. Sometimes a pathology, sometimes a source of pride. Rather like the “type A personality” — the concepts are closely related.

Usage note: “workaholic” is rarely applied to manual laborers. It goes with salesmen, politicians, administrators, office workers generally; I’ve seen it applied to baseball players, who work with their hands but don’t do manual labor. There are workaholics in the fields and coal mines, and one can use the word to refer to them, but it sounds a little funny somehow. That may be because farmers and miners don’t have a choice about whether to work hard or not; no appeal to an emotional disorder is needed to explain their diligence. Would those who consider workaholism a pathology consider it an ungovernable compulsion, analogous to heroin addiction? There is a Workaholics Anonymous. The word can be used fancifully, too, as in this encomium to the noble kidney, organ extraordinary, published on Huffington Post, “The kidney is a workaholic.”

Thanks to the inestimably and estimably lovely Liz from Queens for nominating this word!

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