Famous Sayings: #77 — ‘Working Hard or Hardly Working’

September 1, 2017

Are you working hard or hardly working?

working hard or hardly working, Labor Day, famous sayings, chiasmus
Has this man been working hard? To me, it looks like he was hardly working. (Photo by Jason Ernst via Flickr. Some Rights Reserved.)

For Labor Day Weekend, I wanted to do another themed post. Originally, I wanted to look at this phrase last year, but I decided to go with something else for two reasons: First, there wasn’t a lot of information out there. Second, I thought this phrase seemed a bit disrespectful for the occasion.

Since then, I found some articles related to this theme, some with bits of inspiration. However, it was hard to pin down the origin of this phrase.


Was I Able to Find the Origin of ‘Working Hard or Hardly Working’?

In all honesty, no, but I may have found a clue while looking at Quora.

This question was only answered by two users by the time I read this post.

The first user was Robert Charles Lee, who answered on March 11, 2016.

Lee could not give a definitive answer about the origin of the phrase, resolving that since the origin might have been lost in time. He said he first heard the phrase over 40 years ago when he was a schoolboy, and he was it might have originated from Spanish. However, he could not confirm the origin since he didn’t know Spanish.

I tried to find if the origin was indeed Spanish, but that led me to a dead-end.


What Does the Phrase Mean?

It’s very easy to figure out what the phrase means, especially if you’ve used it yourself or someone you know asked you the question. Usually, someone will ask someone who just got off work or is still in the process of doing something, “Working hard or hardly working?”

It’s a play on words, with the used of adverbs being the most important parts of this sentence. When someone works hard, they are putting a lot of effort and energy into what they’re doing. If they are hardly working, they are not putting forth much effort, if at all.


What Kind of a Phrase Is ‘Working Hard of Hardly Working’?

Robert Charles Lee said the phrase “working hard or hardly working” was a phrase based in humor and sarcasm and it might be a “literary device known as ‘chiasm’ (key-asm).”

I think he misspoke there, because after some searches, I think the correct term is chiasmus. From the Literary Devices website, I was able to find this definition:

Chiasmus is a rhetorical device in which two or more clauses are balanced against each other by the reversal of their structures in order to produce an artistic effect.

As I illustrated above, the adverbs “hard” and “hardly” have opposite meanings. One increases the intensity of the verb (working) and the other lessens the intensity. In this way, the two clauses are weighted against each other to produce a phrase that is slightly humorous.


How Can This Famous Saying Be Inspirational?

It depends on how someone looks at the clauses.

Back to Quora

The second user from the thread I visited, Genius U, answered on November 18, 2016.

From the original content I could glean, the poster left a few thoughts about the right “The RIGHT WAY” and “The WRONG WAY” to do work. Basically, the right way to do work is by “doubling down” at one is best at and what they love to do. Hard work is the wrong way because people who do that are working on the things they’re not best at. The latter can be remedied when people use their time wisely and work with others whose talents complement theirs.

ET Inspires

In a motivational post from earlier this year, Jaudon Robinson told readers that the most important work they will do is on themselves. He led up to this point by first explaining how most people viewed work and shared that the true definition of work, which is “to become.” Normally, we would define work to mean “to do something.”

While many people hate their jobs (“approximately 85%,” but that was not sourced) and many hate Mondays since their work weeks start then, Robinson stresses that people should give no more to their places of employment than required. People should give their 8 hours, “but THAT’S ALL THEY GET!” The rest of a worker’s time, which not only includes days off, should be dedicated to that person and what they can do to improve their lives.

Robinson cautioned that working on one’s self would be hard. He said society distracts us from that task, but it must be done. Also, he said the point where people want to give up is the point where they can make their greatest breakthrough if they persevere.

Note: I had to find this on an archive, although I originally found this page months ago on the live website.

The Trenches of Discovery

In this relatively short post from James Felce, who was in the process of earning his PhD, discussed how hard scientists work. He started off with a quote from Horace and related it to his own passion as a scientist. Felce also cited a study from the University of Notthingham which looked at the work habits of scientists from various countries.

In the end, Felce said that work as a scientist, while intensive and with little rewards (at least in the beginning), was fulfilling for a few key reasons. Basically, scientists can decide their areas of study, with some limits every now and then, and finding the answers validated the hard work.


Is That All?

It is for now, but I plan on writing another post for Labor Day this year. I found some articles I want to share so until then …


Works Cited

“Chiasmus.” Literary Devices. Web. Retrieved 1 Sept 2017. <https://literarydevices.net/chiasmus/>.

Felce, James. “Working hard or hardly working?” The Trenches of Discovery. 14 Aug 2013. Web. Retrieved 1 Sept 2017. <https://trenchesofdiscovery.blogspot.com/2013/08/working-hard-or-hardly-working.html>.

Joel. “Are You Working Hard or Hardly Working?” Master Key English. 15 Dec 2011. Web. Retrieved 1 Sept 2017. <http://masterkeyenglish.com/are-you-working-hard-or-hardly-working/>.

Robinson, Jaudon “Working Hard, Or Hardly Working…” ET Inspires. 6 Feb. 2015. Web. Retrieved 1 Sept 2017. <http://web.archive.org/web/20150331070532/http://etinspires.com/working-hard-or-hardly-working/>.

Various. “When did the phrase ‘Are you working hard or hardly working’ originate?” Quora. Last Updated 18 Nov 2016. Web. Retrieved 1 Sept 2017. <https://www.quora.com/When-did-the-phrase-Are-you-working-hard-or-hardly-working-originate>.

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