Coworker is a funny word. It’s often misread, sometimes accidentally, sometimes on purpose. And while I love a good double entendre, in my editorial role as a professional clarifier I feel it is worthwhile inserting a hyphen to make it clear what it really is: cow-orker.
Wait, did you think it really is co-worker? Just because it’s a term for fellow office drudges, wage slaves, nine-to-fivers or burger-flippers or ditch-diggers in service of some bossman or bosslady? Well, that’s just how reanalysis goes. That’s why a line cook wears an apron instead of a napron (as it once was) and peels an orange instead of a norange (as it once was). And it kind of makes sense: the Latin co– prefix attached to the Germanic worker (although why not con-worker, and why do we so rarely say we co-work? riddle me this!).
But no, no, of course not. It’s cow-orker, from good old Scandinavian roots. It doesn’t mean someone who orks cows – what even would that be? (Goodness gracious.) It’s a word for someone who endures under oppression.
Here, I’ll show you. The first part is the root cow, not as in bovine but as in be cowed. It comes from Old Norse kúga ‘oppress’. The second part is from the now-unused verb ork (still seen in Swedish as orka), from Old Norse orka, ‘have sufficient strength, will, or stamina’. A cow-orker is, as I have said, someone who orks even though cowed. (There may be some suggestion that a cow-orker also orks to cow. I’ve shared a workplace with one or two of those people.)
Does that ork work for you? It should; the ultimate origin of it is the same as for work. But while we have ideas about labour and effort and so on in work, I think some of the true tone comes out in a modern Swedish use of the verb – to mean ‘be able to, be bothered to’ (per Wiktionary), used generally in the negative, as in “Jag orkar inte bry mig om det idag” (“I can’t be bothered to care about that today”; again, thanks to Wiktionary for the example). It even gets stripped down to “Orka!” in the same was as in English we’d say “As if!” Which I especially like, because often when someone in your place of employ tries to cow you, “As if!” is a good and popular response.
I no longer have cow-orkers. I did for two decades, but in the end, my orking prevailed over the cowing; I broke free and went independent. Now I keep my own company, and edit books and articles for such clients as I may come to a mutually beneficial agreement with.
And of course I still sit down and write this blog, for which all its readers should definitely consider becoming patrons (via Patreon), because it’s free to all readers with no advertising and it does cost me money for the hosting (not just on WordPress but on Soundcloud, which hosts the podcast versions that I diligently record and add after posting the text). And it takes time. I charge clients for my time, you know.
And you get value from it. Don’t you? These fascinating etymologies. Great linguistic facts. Also the occasional bit of bull, such as I have obviously just served you. Yes, of course the word is really co-worker and has never actually been cow-orker and there is no English verb ork. But everything else I just told you is true. Click on the links on cow and orka and see for yourself.