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ESL Story: The language of work

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According to some people there''s nothing quite like it, others maintain that it keeps you young and some even declare that too much of it tends to turn you into a dullard – oh, and also one more clue – it''s a four letter word. But to put your mind at rest just in case you haven''t guessed, I''m referring to the word 'work'' and, in particular, to the hard variety. There is always considered to be some virtue in hard work and those who advocate it have created many expressions to describe it. Let''s start with a couple of figurative ones. You are said to burn the midnight oil if you work late into the night and if you keep up this habit for lengthy periods, then you burn the candle at both ends.

But, of course, hard work does not come naturally to man and he frequently has to be persuaded to submit himself to the task in hand by those in authority. Management encourages the worker in the interest of greater production to put his shoulder to the wheel.

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Likewise, the tutor advises the student approaching his final exams to put his nose to the grindstone. But all this is rather austere and there are occasions when we want to suggest that there is an element of fun in hard work. When the job in hand is something that you enjoy, you express your pleasure in anticipation of the task by saying: "Come on, let''s get cracking." Again the motorist, faced with the prospect of changing a wheel half way through his journey, will say to his passenger with an air of cheerfulness: "Ah, well I''d better roll my sleeves up and get down to it."

But I suppose those who are forever telling you that they''ve been over-doing it lately are most prolific in their use of expressions connected with hard work. Such a man was Harry Driver, a neighbour of mine, who recently retired. Now Harry worked in some department or other of the Civil Service. Whenever you asked him how he was, he would always ascribe his poor state of health to the prodigious amount of work he was called upon to undertake. Let me quote one of his favourite expressions: "I''m up to my eyes in work at the moment. Mind you, Harry always manages to look very healthy and when I commented on this at his retirement party the other week, he was quick to retort: "Well, As I frequently say, hard work never killed anyone." It wasn''t until later that I learnt from Harry''s wife that the department in which he''d been toiling away for twenty years was officially closed the day after he left. Poor old Harry! He''d become living proof of an expression that I''d always thought of as a wild exaggeration: he''d worked himself to a standstill.

Back to work then – I first mentioned two metaphors: to burn the midnight oil and to burn the candle at both ends, both of which describe working harder than you should – harder in fact than is really good for you. Two expressions which are in the nature of exhortations, that have become clichés through over use, came next: Put your shoulder to the wheel and Put your nose to the grindstone. They both recommend a need for greater effort. On the lighter side when work is undertaken cheerfully, we start the job with remarks like: Well, let''s get cracking or Ah, well I''d better roll my sleeves up and get down to it. And, finally, there are those like Harry who exaggerate the amount of work they do. Harry always wanted to be thought of as being extremely busy and when asked how he was would invariably reply: "I''m up to my eyes in work at the moment." And, no doubt, he would say to his wife when he came home, which could be a convenient excuse for being late, "I''ve worked myself to a standstill today," which means he just couldn''t do any more work that day.

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Next:ESL Story: The language of yes

Author: Alan Townend

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