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Hard graft

Q From Raymond Hogg, Edinburgh: I was wondering if anyone knew where the term hard graft came from, as in the British sense of hard work. I believe in the US the term has a different, pejorative, meaning.

A There are several senses of graft in the language, such as the gardening, medical and the bribery and corruption one from the US that you mention, all from different sources.

Yours started life as another word for spit, the depth of earth that can be thrown up at one time with a spade. This comes from the Old Norse groftr, digging, and is also linked with the verb grave, an ancient Germanic one also meaning to dig (from which we get the noun grave in the body-burial sense).

Most commonly, graft turned up in the phrase spade’s graft for one spit’s depth, as in this from the Transactions of the Society of Arts in 1792: “We dug one spade’s graft (about nine inches deep, and seven inches wide) into the quick sand.” Graft was also used for a trench or ditch, something that had been grafted, and for a narrow, crescent-shaped spade workmen cut drains with. The West Somerset Word-Book of 1888 noted that to graft was to go much deeper than to spit; a glossary of 1891 of North Devon speech recorded that to graft was “to push the tool down to its full depth each time the soil is lifted”.

The implication is that grafting is hard work. The English Dialect Dictionary noted, however, that in some counties, graft had taken on a broader sense of work of any kind, but not particularly hard work.

The evidence strongly suggests that it was in Australia and New Zealand that it came to mean heavy labour and where the phrase hard graft first appeared. John Rochfort, writing in 1853 in Adventures of a Surveyor in New Zealand, said, “I could make more money by ‘hard graft’, as they call labour in the colonies.” An Australian work of 1873, Christmas on Carringa, includes, “My name is Jim the Cadger. I’m a downy cove, you see. ‘Hard graft’, it ain’t my fancy.”

It appears in the United States at the end of the century, where — for example — the Fresno Weekly Republican uses it on 10 August 1899: “Two years of strict military discipline, hard ‘graft’ and sobriety will make a man out of him, if anything will.” But it never seems to have caught on in that country.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 16 Feb. 2008

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 16 February 2008.