Reading the Dictionary

Well into a project on intellectual property and cultural workers, I have not yet done an Oxford English Dictionary search of the terms “intellectual,” “property,” “cultural,” and “workers.” Maybe that would be productive?

The adjective “intellectual,”  French in origin, came into usage in the 14th century, meaning: “Apprehended or apprehensible only by the intellect or mind (as opposed to the senses), non-material, spiritual.” In the mid-15th century, the meaning “of or belonging to the intellect or understanding” entered the English literary record. In the early 1700s, we begin to find uses of “intellectual” as “possessing a high degree of understanding or intelligence; given to pursuits that exercise the intellect; spec. devoted to academic or cultural interests.”

As early as 1652, English speakers began to use “intellectual” to refer to “An intellectual being; a person of superior or supposedly superior intellect; spec. (a) a highly intelligent person who pursues academic interests; (b) a person who cultivates the mind or mental powers and pursues learning and cultural interests,” but this tendency did not become dominant until the late 19th century. It was not until the late 18th century that “intellectual” began to be used as “appealing to or engaging the intellect” or “requiring the exercise of understanding.”

The OED‘s list of  “Special Uses”  of “intellectual” is illuminating: many compounds that we might expect to have been forged recently turn out to be longer in the tooth. Most importantly, for our purposes, “intellectual property” (chiefly Law property [such as patents, trademarks, and copyright material] which is the product of invention or creativity, and does not exist in a tangible, physical form”) goes back, apparently, to 1769, much earlier than I would have guessed. Interestingly, most of the early 19th century examples of “intellectual property” in the OED come from American legal references. “Intellectual history” goes back to 1755. “Intellectual capital” (“the skils and knowledge possessed by an individual, organization, etc., as regarded as a resource or asset”) goes back to 1818.

Property, Anglo-Norman in derivation, originally denoted something like “essence,” a meaning that is still very much with us:”The characteristic quality of a person or thing; (hence) character, nature”;  also, “An attribute, characteristic, or quality. In earlier use sometimes: a distinctive, essential, or special quality; a peculiarity” (14th century).  In the Middle Ages, property was also in use as a term within Aristotelian logic, with a meaning in conflict with the definition above: “a characteristic which is peculiar to a particular kind of thing but is not part of its essence or definition.” With a more moral gloss, property was also used as a synonym for “propriety”: “The quality of being proper or appropriate; fitness, fittingness, suitability; the proper use or sense of words.”

The first citations indicative of the modern understanding of property began to dot the literary record in the early 1500s:  “A (usually material) thing belonging to a person, group of persons, etc.; a possession; (as a mass noun) that which one owns; possessions collectively; a person’s goods, wealth, etc.” Also late 15th/early 16th century: “The fact of owning something or of being owned… (esp. in legal contexts) the (exclusive) right to the possession, use, or disposal of a thing; ownership, proprietorship.”  The end of the Tudor-Stuart period seems to have seen a new concretization of property rights: e.g., 1641’s “Propertie is the highest right that a man hath or can have to any thing, which no way dependeth upon another mans curtesie” or the many formulations  in  Locke’s Two Treatises of Government (1680-1690). Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England  (1768):  “The right of possession (though it carries with it a strong presumption) is not always conclusive evidence of the right of property, which may still subsist in another man.”
Ambiguity surrounded this meaning of property well into the 18th century. “Property” remained grounded in the logic of feudal custom. Pre-capitalist understandings of sovereignty–for most of the history of Europe, even the very wealthy and powerful thought of their rights to land and possessions as shared and non-exclusive, enjoyed at the sufferance of the sovereign, and  inclusive of a wide variety of communal usage rights afforded to the poor–continued to inform jurisprudence and everyday speech.
It was only in the 1700s (coincident with the maturation of a certain capitalist sensibility in England  after the Glorious Revolution) that “property” began to automatically denote “private property”: “Originally: a piece of land under one ownership; a landed estate. Now also: any residential or other building (with or without associated land) or separately owned part of such a building (as an apartment, etc.).”
The conventional present-day legal understanding of property rights as a “bundle of rights,” the most important of which is “rights to exclude,” seems to be a relatively recent development. The OED‘s first citation pointing in this direction is from 1875 :  “Rights of property or ownership over land, meaning by property or ownership the enjoyment of those indefinite rights of user over land by virtue of which in ordinary language a person is entitled to speak of land as his property.”
Cultural forms of property constitute an important subset of newer semiotic shadings. Consider this interesting entry: “orig. and chiefly N. Amer. A literary work considered with regard to its commercial production (esp. film) rights.” (1919); related: (a) hot (also big) property n. colloq. an artist, performer, literary work, etc., regarded as a commercial asset, esp. a person who is very fashionable or who has risen suddenly in popularity; a success, a sensation.”

Also of interest: the gradual appearance of new compounds: property lawyer (1822);property holder (1824); property interest (1835); property owner (1837); property-loving (usually in reference to the peculiarity of Americans) (1846); property value (1851); property right (1853): property market (1875); property developer (1919).

As Raymond Williams famously observed in the 1960s, “culture” has only recently assumed its dominant contemporary meaning as the umbrella under which fall aesthetic life and collective memory. Interestingly, the OED suggests that “culture” as, broadly speaking, “art” goes back a bit further; but the adjective/modifier “cultural” squares exactly with Williams’s periodization.

“Culture,” from from the classical Latin cultūra, transplanted into English via Anglo-Norman and Middle French, first appears in English as: “The cultivation of land, and derived senses” (1450). Culture as “The cultivating or rearing of a plant or crop” began to be used in 1580; as “The rearing or raising of certain animals, such as fish, oysters, bees, etc., or the production of natural animal products such as silk” in 1744; and as “The product of such culture; a growth or crop of artificially maintained microorganisms, cells, etc.” in 1880.

Antedating the contemporary use of the word “culture”: “The cultivation or development of the mind, faculties, manners, etc.; improvement by education and training”  (1510). The late 17th century saw “culture” as “Refinement of mind, taste, and manners; artistic and intellectual development. Hence: the arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively “(1677) and “The devoting of attention to or the study of a subject or pursuit” (1692).

The anthropological definition of “culture” appears in the Victorian era: “The distinctive ideas, customs, social behavior, products, or way of life or a particular nation, society, people, or period. Hence: a society or group characterized by such customs, etc.” (1860). At about the same time, “culture” began to be used with modifying nouns to describe “a way of life or social environment characterized by or associated with the specified quality or thing; a group of people subscribing or belonging to this.” For example: culture hero (1868); culture contact (1892); culture lag (1925); culture clash (1926);  culture shock  (1932); culture jammer (1990).

“Cultural” adj. (“Of or relating to intellectual and artistic pursuits”) pops up in 1856. Even more recent is “cultural” as “Of, belonging to, or relating to the culture of a particular society, people, or period” (1875).

“Cultural” as “Of or relating to the culture or cultivation of plants, fish, crops, etc.” was in use by 1868, and as “Of or relating to the culture of microorganisms, cells, etc.” by 1889.  “Cultural” began to be used to denote “An aspect of culture. Also (with the): that which is cultural” in  1904.

Compounds: cultural centre (1891); cultural property (1898); cultural nationalism (1914); cultural affairs (1918); cultural desert (1921); cultural imperialism (1921); cultural lag (1922); cultural materialism(1922); cultural exchange (1923); cultural relativism (1924); cultural revolution (1929); cultural war, Kulturkampf (1933); cultural attaché (1937); cultural activism (1938); cultural festival (1938); cultural terrorism (1939);  cultural warriors (1944); cultural literacy (1946); cultural diplomacy (1959); cultural studies (1965); cultural cleansing (1983).        

“Work” (from Old English, Saxon, Middle Low German) meaning: “Something that is or was done; what a person does or did; an act, deed, proceeding, business”  seems to be the oldest of the terms under consideration, dating back to 971. Even older is “work” as “Action involving effort or exertion directed to a definite end, esp. as a means of gaining one’s livelihood; labor; toil; (one’s) regular occupation or employment” (825). “With possessive: The product of the operation of labor of a person or other agent; the thing made, or things made collectively; creation, handiwork. Also, vaguely, the result of one’s labor, something accomplished” (825-19th century);  ““Without possessive: A thing made, a manufactured article or object; a structure or apparatus of some kind, esp. one forming part of a larger thing. Now chiefly in generalized sense with qualification, esp. in established compounds such as brickwork n.,… lattice-work n.,… etc. (825);“A particular act of piece of labor, a task, job.” Also a “hard task,” or “a particular operation in some manufacture” (960). Older still are “curse of Adam” shadings: “work” as “pain, ache” (569).

The OED traces the theological use of “work,” meaning “Moral actions considered in relation to justification; usually as contrasted with faith or grace” back to 1362.  At around the same time: The result of the action or operation of some person or thing; ‘effect, consequence of agency’; the device or invention of some one”(1382).

Evocations of “occupation, employment, business, task, function” begin to appear with increasing frequency with the approach of the Elizabethean era.  For example, “work” as “Action (of a person or thing) of a particular kind; doing, performance; working, operation. In various connections; of a thing; often in reference to result; to do its work, to produce its effect” (1440);  “any action requiring effort or difficult to do” (1518); “The labor done in making something, as distinguished from the material used” (1737);  in slang, also “a criminal act or activity” (1819).

“Work” as in “work of art” (“A product of any of the fine arts [in relation to the artist], as a painting, a statue, etc. In the phr. A work of art including, besides these, literary or musical works, and connoting high artistic quality. Also… artistic production in the abstract, or artistic products collectively” [1531]) has medieval origins. The OED traces the denotation of “A literary or musical composition (viewed in relation to its author or composer)” to 1300.  Usage seems to reflect the historical consensus that “work of art” becomes increasingly common with the rise of the Enlightenment.

Other uses of “work” round out the term’s semiotic profile. “Good work” (“a morally commendable or virtuous act; an act of kindness or good will; esp. [in religious and theological use] an act of piety; usually pl., such acts done in obedience to divine law, or as the fruits of faith or godliness” was in use in English as early as 1000. “To go to work,” meaning “to proceed to some action (expressed or implied); to begin doing something to commence operations” is found in 1377’s Piers Plowman. “Work” as “An establishment where some industrial labor, esp. manufacture, is carried on, including the whole of the building and machinery used; a factory, manufactory, etc.” can be found as early as 1581. “At work,” meaning “Occupied with labor; engaged in a task; working, esp. at one’s regular occupation. (Of a person or animal; also of a machine)” goes back to the Elizabethean era; as does “at work” as “Occupied in some action or process, esp. one directed to a definite end or result; actively engaged; operating. (Of persons or their faculties, or of animals; also of forces or influences).” “Out of work” (having no work to do, unemployed, workless) dates back to 1699.

The slang terms: “the (whole) works”; “to give (someone) the works”; and “to get the works” (with the implication of full treatment or severe punishment) are products of the 20th century.

The progress of compounds is, as usual, suggestive: work-beast (1380); work-horse  (1543); work-ox (1567);  work-horse (1587); work-tool (1588); work-servant (1593); work-nag (1597);  work-yard (1614); work-maid (1627); work-bench (1785); work-person (1807); work-place (1828); work-room (1828);work-hour (1848); work-girl (1848); work-time (1882); work-shy (adj. shy of or disinclined for work, lazy) (1904); work-song (1911); work-gnarled (1913); work-sharing (1934); work-week  (1935); work-boat (1941); work-chant (1946);  work-life (1946); work-load (1946); work-gang (1948); work group (1954);work flow (1959);  work ethic, as “work seen as virtuous in itself, a term usu. connected with Protestant attitudes and deriving from Max Weber’s thesis on the origins of modern capitalism” (OED says 1959, which seems rather late to me); work-force (1961); work-rule (1963); work-site (1975); work–life (also work/life) of, relating to, or designating work and personal life, or the relationship between the two; esp. in work–life balance”) (1977).

The history of the word “worker” (“One who makes, creates, produces, or contrives”; “An author, producer, contriver, or doer; also with epithet, as evil worker=evil doer, arch. [1374)]) largely overlaps with that of “work,” but interestingly did not come into usage until the 14th century. “Worker” as “One who works or does work of any kind of any kind (sometimes with adj. denoting the quality of the work); esp. one who works in a certain medium, at a specified trade or object of manufacture, or in a certain position or status (often denoted by prefixed n., etc., as boiler-worker, cloth-worker, iron-worker, metal-worker; co-worker, fellow-worker; brain-worker, hand-worker); in early use also, †a maker or manufacturer (of a specified thing)” goes back to 1382. “Worker,” used emphatically, “as opposed to idler, or the like” does not appear until 1624). Perhaps most interestingly, chronologically: “One who is employed for a wage, esp. in manual or industrial work; now often in the language of social economics, a ‘producer of wealth,’ as opposed to capitalist” (1848). Compounds: worker ant (1816); worker bee (1816); workers’ co-operative (1923); workers’ control (1928); worker participation.

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