Daily Archives: December 23, 2008


A short, homely, rarely used word, but one that may yet be of service. Robert Service, for one – I’ll venture to reckon that most who know this word think immediately of “the men who moil for gold.” And that context in itself gives you a decent idea of the meaning. If you figure it means to make yourself moist toiling in the soil, you pretty much have it. Although it could be collapsed machine oil, it’s really elbow grease. And what is elbow grease? Sweat, of course. Latin molliare “moisten” became Middle French moillier “soak, stain, drench oneself,” whence modern French mouiller – and this word. But from getting wet we came to working hard (with the aid of rhyme: toil and moil was, and occasionally still is, a fixed phrase). Turmoil may have been involved in this, too, though it’s not clear whether it’s related to this word. From the sense of making oneself wet and muddy we also got grubbing in the ground, pig-style, making it a minor move for a miner to be a moiler. Especially since a moil is also a pointed rock-cutting tool for miners. Other words moil are the stub left in glass-blowing after the blown item has been detached, and, from Irish and Welsh, a hornless cow, or just hornless. Hornless, stub, and cutting may remind us that this word sounds the same as one pronunciation of mohel, which refers to the person who performs a circumcision. But in that case, it’s a minor, not a miner, who is being cut, not cutting, and we’ll just stop there. For those of us who work at desks, moil may seem like a useful word for things we see other people do (perhaps as we drive by in our cars), but, say on a day approaching Christmas, you may find shopping moil an apposite pun.