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Back in July, the New Scientist's Feedback page reported that

THE powers that be at Guy Robinson's place of work insist that employees tell the office if they're "working from home". Human laziness being what it is – sorry, we meant to say "the employees being committed to maximising productivity in a forward-looking sense" – the welter of emails on Monday mornings got shortened to the three letters "WFH". Then someone was stuck working at an airport and sent the message "WFA".

Then, given the insistence by the virus that is language on mutating whenever possible, the changes poured in and escaped the limitations of the alphabet: "WFT" working on a train, "WF\__" working from a sunlounger (not being smug or anything) and "WF\_O__/" working from a plane (ditto).

Guy's colleagues suggest "WF#" for "working from prison", but they have not needed to use this, yet. Feedback suggests a few others: "WF=====" for working at a linear accelerator and "WF() – -()" for working in a laser lab (with lenses).

The Feedback editor suggested that

Now the phenomenon just needs a sciency name. It has to be "ergotopography", from the Greek words for "work", "place" and "writing".

and called for more examples from readers. A couple of days ago, the results were reported:

Unsurprisingly, we received a number of suggestions that are unprintable – either because they use characters or symbols our printers don't have, or because they would make the magazine illegal in Herat and/or Houston. Perhaps surprisingly, most of the former were also the latter.

Another which may cause the typesetters pause is John Harvey's "WF    " for "working from space". It will also probably stretch your manager's credulity, unless your business cards bear the words "Space Agency".

Among the remainder, we would thank Philip Ritchie for WF(O<-<) for "working from the bath", if it weren't for the office health and safety supremo standing over us, shrieking: "Don't do that!"

Jeremy Bailey claims to be working from a flat-bottomed boat with an outboard motor: WFgl___/, whereas Tom Hasker's boat has an entirely more serious propeller: WF§-\___/, and Mike Forsyth claims to be on a sailboat: WF~~~4~~~.

And, oh, all right then: following enthusiastic lobbying by several mums in the New Scientist office, here is one that Feedback had at first put in the unprintable category. It comes from Belinda Anyos, who suggests that an obstetrician writing from a labour ward might want to send: WF/\(☺)/\.

I don't know Greek well enough to tell whether combining the roots of ergon and topos to mean "place of work" is plausible or not, but at least according to LSJ, no classical author seems to have tried it. Nor does the OED know of any English coinages starting with "ergotopo-".

A more authentic word for workplace might be ἐργᾰστήριον, but ergasteriography is only a little less awkward than ergotopography. And anyhow, πόνος "toil, labor" might be a better choice for the "work" morpheme in this case.

Still, an awkward and perhaps inauthentic neologism is a good fit for a concept whose instances, as the New Scientist's feedback editor admits, "appear, in the words of one contributor's confession, to have been 'bred in captivity'".

In any case, I'm WF here:


  1. The Ridger said,

    September 5, 2009 @ 9:29 am

    "given the insistence by the virus that is language on mutating whenever possible, the changes poured in"

    That is extremely awkward. I had to read it four times before it parsed. More relevantly, what on earth does language's "insistence on mutating" have to do with this? It's just inventive orthography!

  2. AKMA said,

    September 5, 2009 @ 9:47 am

    Depending on one's vocation, it might be banausotopograpy.

  3. HP said,

    September 5, 2009 @ 1:26 pm

    Am I correct in thinking that ergaster is the locative of ergon?

    (I only read you guys because you know so much more than I do, but there are occasional lacunae I can't fill on my own.)

  4. Tom Recht said,

    September 5, 2009 @ 1:41 pm

    HP, ergastēr is a workman; ergastērion is a workplace.

    I suggest pothendeixis, 'indication where from'.

  5. Justin L said,

    September 5, 2009 @ 1:55 pm

    I kind of like the way laboralocatives flows off the tongue.

  6. Sili said,

    September 5, 2009 @ 2:00 pm

    I read that as "typography" until I got to the explanation.

    This is a well as I can do: WFı^ı-ıôı (They should have sent an artist).

  7. Martin Watts said,

    September 5, 2009 @ 4:23 pm

    Ergotopography sounds as if it is something to do with ergotism, which might not be such a good idea.

  8. Mark Mandel said,

    September 5, 2009 @ 5:10 pm

    To the skimming eye, WFT 'working from train' mutates very quickly to WTF.

  9. Brien Southward said,

    September 6, 2009 @ 2:44 am

    Huh, The Ridger? That line might be my favorite from this entire article. I think it sums up pretty concisely the unending tendency for language to change. additionally, the description as a "virus" is an apt metaphor due to its interpersonal transmission and the notion of a meme, a term you could apply to language, as being virus-like. I think you're overreacting to a completely innocuous, and in my opinion very effective metaphor. Not catching it right off isn't a very good cause for complaint.

  10. Valentini Mellas said,

    September 7, 2009 @ 6:46 am

    @Mark Mandel: I did exactly that while reading and had to re-read to realize it was NOT WTF :)

    On the suggested neologism:
    ergon is indeed work in ancient Greek (douleia in modern Greek- the accent on the last letter; if one places the accent on the dipthong "ei" then the word gets transformed from work to slavery)
    topos is locus, location in both ancient and modern Greek.
    topography as a word exists in modern Greek of course so ergotopography would look nice and very understandable for Greek speakers :)

    I really like this word (and WFH of course :D)

  11. Jonathon Contire said,

    September 11, 2009 @ 2:01 pm

    You may be interested to hear that a wikipedia entry now exists for this word - – although it may not be around for long after being flagged as trivial!

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