English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

A job is a job is a job

Q: I’m bugged by the use of “job” and “of” in this sentence: “I have the job of delivering the bad news.” The “job” here is a task, not a position, and what is the “of” doing there? There’s no possession involved.

A: You raise two issues—the meaning of the noun “job” and its use with the preposition “of.” We’ll start with the noun.

A “job” doesn’t always mean an occupation or line of work. It can also mean a task, a responsibility, or simply something that needs to be done—senses of the word that have been common for centuries.

So a person can have both “the job of sales assistant” and “the job of delivering the bad news.” And a company that’s lagging in some area can try “to do a better job.” In modern English, “job” has these and many other senses.

However, when the noun “job” came into English in the 16th century it didn’t mean a paid position, as it does today. It originally meant “a piece of work; esp. a small and discrete piece of work done as part of one’s regular occupation or profession,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The word first appeared in the phrase “job of work,” recorded in documents (dated 1557-58) relating to the reigns of King Edward VI and Queen Mary : “Doinge certen Iobbes of woorke.” (The letter “i” was used before “j” became established.)

Here’s a later example with the word used alone: “I cannot read, I keep a Clark to do those jobbs for need” (from Thomas Middleton’s play The Mayor of Quinborough, 1615–20, known today under the title Hengist, King of Kent).

The origins of the word “job” are unknown, the OED says, but it’s significant that in the mid-1500s a separate noun “job” meant “a cartload,” or “the amount that a horse and cart can bring at one time.” (This later led to the dialectal nouns “jobble” and “jobbet,” for a small load of hay or whatnot.)

So it’s possible that the two kinds of “job” are etymologically connected. The OED suggests that the original “job” (in “a job of work”) may have conveyed the sense of a “piece” or a “mass”—that is, an amount of something that needed to be carried or moved and hence represented a task.

In fact, the noun “jobber” (1600s), in the sense of a small trader, may also derive from that early sense of “job” as a cartload of something to be hauled.

Apart from its mysterious etymology, “job” later developed many wider meanings than the “piece of work” definition given above. Here are some of them in chronological order, with the OED definitions:

  • “An isolated or casual piece of work, undertaken for a one-off payment or on a hire basis” (first recorded in 1660).
  • Criminals’ slang. A crime, esp. one arranged beforehand; spec. a theft, a robbery” (1679).
  • “A task, a thing to be done; an operation, a procedure; a function to be fulfilled” (1680).
  • “A state of affairs, a situation, a set of circumstances,” frequently used with a modifier (1680), as in the 19th-century phrase “to make the best of a bad job.”
  • Printing. A small piece of miscellaneous work, such as the printing of posters, leaflets, cards, etc.” (1770).
  • “A paid position of regular employment, a post, a situation; an occupation, a profession” (1781).
  • “A difficult task” (colloquial), as in “That was a job!” (1832).
  • “A person’s particular responsibility, duty, or role,” as in “It was my job to pay all the bills” (1841). This is the sense of “job” in the sentence you ask about.
  • “A piece of work carried out using the tool or material specified,” used with a modifying noun, as in “needle job” (1846).
  • “An operation involving cosmetic surgery … the result of such an operation” (colloquial), used with a  modifying noun, as in “nose job” (1947).

Finally, you ask what “of” is doing in “the job of delivering the bad news.” The expression is a genitive construction, not a possessive. As we’ve noted several times on our blog, the term “genitive” is broader than “possessive.”

In addition to possession (“the lawyer’s office”), the genitive can indicate the source of something (“the girl’s story”), an amount (“two cups of cream”), the date (“yesterday’s storm”), a part (“the cover of the book”), duration (“five years of experience”), type (“the job of cleaning up”), and so on.

In the expression you ask about, “the job of delivering the bad news,” the genitive indicates the type of job.

The “of” in uses like this, the OED explains, serves to connect two nouns, the first denoting the class and the second a particular example of that class.

In “the job of delivering the bad news,” the noun “job” represents the class, and “of” connects it to “delivering the bad news,” a gerund phrase that functions as a noun denoting an example of the class.

OED citations for “of” used this way date back to Old English. With spellings updated, they include “borough of Lincoln” (1123), “color of scarlet” (1530), “vice of covetousness” (1691), and “month of November” (1749).

We also use “of” after “job” to express things like “a good job of painting his room” or “a better job of marketing the product” or “the worst job of redecorating I’ve ever seen.”

There again, what follows “of” answers the question, “What kind of job?”

We’ll end with a quote from one our favorite fictional detectives, Lord Peter Wimsey: “I think the most joyous thing in life is to loaf around and watch another bloke do a job of work.” (The Five Red Herrings, 1931, by Dorothy L. Sayers.)

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