In the once-popular humorous poem “The Cremation of Sam McGee,” by Robert Service, we learn from the first lines that
There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold….
The English verb moil, hardly common, originally meant, as the 1913 Webster’s Dictionary explained, ‘to daub; to make dirty; to soil; to defile.’ If we assume, correctly, that the daubing of the definition involves dipping something in a liquid, we see that moil corresponds to a Spanish word we looked at last time, mojar ‘to wet,’ with the English version coming through Old French moillier, the cognate of the Spanish verb. Webster’s went on to explain that “from the idea of struggling through the wet,” moil came to mean ‘to soil one’s self with severe labor; to work with painful effort; to labor; to toil; to drudge.’
English likes to double up rhyming words (e.g. helter-skelter, willy-nilly), and because moil rhymes with the toil that is now its main meaning, the temptation to link the two words has been irresistible. The 19th-century British novelist Anthony Trollope gave in at least twice in one book, Rachel Ray, where he wrote “You can’t go on at it always, toiling and moiling as you’re doing now” and “Nobody knows how he has toiled and moiled, except me.” And now we know too.
© 2011 Steven Schwartzman