The Grammarphobia Blog

The book of “job”

Q: I was visiting a friend the other day and she used “good job” in the sense of fortunately. My friend grew up in Ireland, and it seems that I hear this usage most often from native English speakers who are not American. You had a posting a few years ago that mentioned this odd use of the word “job.” Could you expand on it?

A: We’ll be happy to oblige.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the word “job” entered English in the 16th century (excluding Old English references to the biblical figure in the Book of Job).

It had several early meanings, including a cartload, a stump, a stab, and a piece of work (the sense that led to the usage you’re asking about).

The earliest example of the work sense in the OED is in a document from the Office of Revels during the reign of King Edward VI.

Here’s the 1557 citation (published two years after Edward’s death), in which “jobs” is spelled “iobbes” and capitalized: “Doinge certen Iobbes of woorke.”

(The Master of Revels, in case you’re curious, was in charge of royal festivities. Nice work if you can get it!)

The OED says the origin of the word “job” is uncertain. But the dictionary adds that the early reference to “jobs of work” suggests that “piece,” rather than “work,” may have been the original core meaning of “job.”

Be that as it may, “job” took on a new sense in the 17th century: “A state of affairs, a situation, a set of circumstances.”

And this new sense, the OED says, was frequently modified by adjectives like “good” and “bad.”

The first citation in the OED for this usage is from Thomas Dangerfield’s picaresque novel Don Tomazo (1680):

“ ’Twas an ill jobb for one Misfortune so soon to fall upon the neck of one another.”

Here’s a more recent citation from A Season for Murder (1991), by the British crime novelist Ann Granger:

“All right, keep your hair on. Good job you could call him up.”

In that example, “Good job” is short for “It’s a good job that …” (meaning fortunately or luckily). This is the way your friend used the expression.

Although the OED references for this usage are generally from British sources, we often hear “job” used this way by Americans.

The dictionary also cites several expressions that use “job” in a similar way. We’ll mention only one of them here: “to make the best of a bad job.”

The expression, which means to do the best one can in unfortunate circumstances, first showed up in the early 19th century.

The first OED citation is from Vindiciae Britannicae, an 1821 religious tract:

“You cannot be the dupe of a craft, which after failing to strangle an infant in its birth, merely adopts it, ‘to make the best of a bad job.’ ”

In T. S. Eliot’s play The Cocktail Party (1950), both Edward and Sir Henry use the expression in conversing with Lavinia:

Edward: “Lavinia, we must make the best of a bad job. That is what he means.”

Sir Henry: The best of a bad job is all any of us make of it.”

We hope this helps, and you find it a good job!

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