Words about words: Job is surprisingly old word

Photo: Waugsberg / Wikimedia Commons
Two b’s or not two b’s? Some spelling differences between Norwegian and English are to be expected.

M. Michael Brady
Asker, Norway

The English word job is the source of the Norwegian noun jobb and the corresponding verb jobbe. Yet the histories of both the original word in English and the Norwegian words derived from it are obscure. The origin of the word job in Old English is unknown; the etymology of it in the complete Oxford English Dictionary simply states that it “probably was in colloquial use some time before it appeared in literature.”

Even so, there’s a theory about that colloquial use. The Old English word job is believed to have entered the language from Old Frankish in the word gobe, which means “a mouthful.” That is plausible, as job is believed to have originally meant “piece of work,” and other words with kindred meanings in modern English also descend from the Old Frankish gobe, including gobbet (lump of food), and goblet (wine cup).

On its historical wandering into modern Norwegian, jobb acquired an extra letter “b.” Fair enough. That’s in conformance with the Norwegian spelling rule tied to pronunciation: a double consonant follows a short vowel. English is not as clear in the relation of the modern word to the sourceword; at least until the mid 18th century, job also occasionally was spelled with two b’s: jobb. Why the version with two b’s did not get into modern English is not explained by any of the rules for double consonants.

Curiously, there’s at least one case of a double consonant appearing in English and being retained. The modern English word Hell, in many religions the place to which the wicked are consigned after death, originally in Old English had only one letter “l,” hel. With time it acquired another “l” to be the Hell of today.

So the modern Norwegian word jobb gives cause to reflect upon the many exceptions for which English orthography is notorious.

Originally published in Norwegian on the Clue dictionaries blog at blogg.clue.no.

M. Michael Brady was educated as a scientist and with time turned to writing and translating.

This article appeared in the Feb. 10, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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