Keeping our mojo working

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

3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. TBM
    Nov 14, 2011 @ 06:39:26

    I’ve never come across the word moil. I’ll have to keep an eye out for it.


  2. Steve Schwartzman
    Nov 14, 2011 @ 07:04:26

    The word seems to be found more in dictionaries than in current usage. I just searched the Internet for a couple of minutes and all the legitimate hits I got were from a century or more ago, except for a current company that sells an implement it calls a moil, which looks like a drill bit.


    • TBM
      Nov 14, 2011 @ 07:16:21

      I have been reading a lot of classic novels recently so I may come across it. I’ll let you know. I love discovering new words and using them and watch people react to them.


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©2011–2018 Steven Schwartzman

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