Word of the Week: Maloche

Mar 14, 2014

Maloche Enlarge image (© dpa) For those of you who are simply looking for a translation: Maloche commonly means schwere Arbeit (“hard work”) and is most frequently used in the context of physical labor and industrial production. That’s the unspectacular, short form.

But why do we present this one as our Word of The Week though? As you might guess, it’s not just because Germans have a charming tendency to use synonyms drawing a more naturalistic picture of the described. Maloche is much more an example of a foreign word that was adopted into the German language during labor force migration in the industrial age. It illustrates the transformation of what the word “work” can stand for today. So get ready for our “beyond the synonym”-explanation:

The word Maloche stems from the Hebrew language. Its root ‘m'lacha’ simply means “work”, but specifically praises the positive, creative aspects of it. In religious contexts it is even used to refer to the biblical Genesis. Regardless of religious affiliations, the creation of the earth must have been a bunch of work and its result, existence, might be considered the lesser evil to non-existence.

However, in the region of Silesia, Germans picked up what became Maloche from Polish Jews who often spoke Jiddish. Unaware of its positive connotations, they transformed it into an expression for hard work. Many workers, moving – during what’s called Landflucht (flight from the land) – from poor, rural Silesia to the emerging industrial centers in the Ruhr region, hoped to find better incomes, modern housing and a higher standard of living in the growing cities. But where they ended up was far from that. The exhausting, dirty work in the stone coal mining industry came with low wages, little time for rest and was a real Maloche. Soon, the term became a popular symbol for what it meant to live the life of an industrial laborer.

Confederation of German Trade Unions Enlarge image A poster of the Confederation of German Trade Unions on Labor Day in 1953. (© picture alliance / dpa) On the other hand, Maloche – which stems from ‘m'lacha’ – is a duty in Judaism. But whenever work has been done for six days, there shall be one day of rest as well. This classical idea of social policy was clearly forgotten in modern times. Having one day off each week is considered to be one of the most striking successes of early labor organization. Perhaps that’s why Germans – among others – paradoxically go on holidays on Tag der Arbeit (Day of Labor) every year on the first of May.

Today, there are only a few coal miners left in the Ruhr region. Despite the fact that the sphere of work has rapidly changed since these days, the word Maloche remains as popular as it was in the past when it comes to moaning about one’s unbearably harsh job. Today, the word is also used by politicians and unionists to fraternize with the “working class”, as well as to flatter oneself as a hard-working guy. So it may come as no big surprise that there are a variety of additional synonyms for the word Arbeit (work) and arbeiten (“to work”) in German dialects: schuften, ackern, klotzen, schaffen, and rackern, to name a few. But none of them get the same attention as Maloche.

By Christian Franke

© Germany.info

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