The Essence of “Essential” and “Inessential” Workers

“Farewell to the arts,- to eloquence” – Mary Shelly, “The Last Man” (1826)

Weird things happen to language during a crisis.

We have no way to describe what’s happening, so we invent new phrases.

During the “outbreak” of the “novel coronavirus”, we comfortably added new phrases to our daily lexicon.

None are more popular than “social distancing” or “essential workers.”

“Essential workers” is an interesting phrase. Essential is the adjective form of “essence.” Ask a 14th century etymologist and they will tell you it means “that is such, by its essence.”

Essential is from the late Latin word essentialis, derived from essentia.

Essentia means “being, essence.”

To be an “essential” worker, you are the very essence of civilization.

The very being of society.

In practical terms, you work in healthcare, grocery, trucking, utilities, farming. The occupations that constitute the very essence of civilization.

This can help us reflect on the importance of these industries in a new way. We can suddenly appreciate the often invisible jobs that keep the country running.

Being an essential worker is – and should be – a badge of honor.

What does this mean for inessential workers?

Being Inessential in an Essential Economy

A strong antonym of essential is “unimportant.” Or “unnecessary.”

Hospitality. Tourism, restaurants. Coffee shops and clothing stores. These are what we consider “inessential” jobs.

These workers and their industries are deemed “inessential.” Unimportant.

Trying out a new look?

Catching up with friends over coffee?

Traveling to new places?

Eating out with a loved one?

Creating new and unexpected memories?

Unimportant. As unimportant as the workers who provide these experiences.

A nurse struggling to keep a patient alive is more visceral than “an essential worker.”

A dishwasher trying to apply for unemployment to feed his family is more real, too, than the pithy messages of “stay at home.”

Language can create worlds, but arcane phrases can vanish other worlds just as easily if we forget to look behind the curtain.

What is the essence of benig essential?

What is the essentialis of life? 

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