Q: At a recent reading, Mary Gordon spoke of her mother’s use of “going to business” rather than “going to work” when talking about women in clerical positions. A woman in the audience wondered if the expression was used mainly by Irish Catholics. But my mother came from a different background and used it too. I felt it was a foolish attempt to give everyday “work” a higher status by using the word “business.” Could you comment on this usage?
A: I don’t find many references to the expression, but it seems to have been used in England in the mid-19th and early 20th centuries, as well as in the United States in the mid-20th century.
Here’s an amusing use of the expression by P.G. Wodehouse in his short story “Extricating Young Gussie” (1915):
“I was surprised to find the streets quite full. People were bustling along as if it were some reasonable hour and not the grey dawn. In the tramcars they were absolutely standing on each other’s necks. Going to business or something, I take it. Wonderful johnnies!”
In the Wodehouse example, “going to business” clearly means going to work, a concept that’s obviously foreign to the narrator!
Here are a couple of quotations from novels:
“And now let’s go to business, gentlemen, and excuse this sermon.” (Thackeray, The Great Hoggarty Diamond, 1841)
“The thing is, she says she is sick and tired of going to business.” (Gordon Lish, Dear Mr. Capote, 1986)
The expression “going to business” does not appear in any of the phrase finders I use. But at least we know that it wasn’t confined to women or to Irish Catholics.
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