If you’ve overheard a colleague characterizing your position as “grunt work” or, worse, describing you as a “grunt worker,” it’s time to start looking for a new job. Grunt work is an American idiom that denotes menial, laborious and unappreciated work; a grunt worker is someone who is doing menial, laborious and unappreciated work.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the original definition of a grunt is “a low, short guttural sound” that emanates from man or beast – presumably when a lot of effort is being expended or things aren’t going so well. The word "grunt" is likely of old Danish (grynte) or German (grunnizon) origin, and probably stems from the Latin "grunnire," a verb meaning "to grunt."
"Grunt work" and "grunt worker" are examples of idiomatic usage of the word, and it’s often difficult to tell how, and when, idiomatic phrases got their start. The Macmillan Dictionary defines grunt work as "work that is boring and sometimes difficult, but not very important," and offers the British idiomatic equivalent -- donekywork. But that doesn't provide any clue about how the expression started. For that, one might have to look to the Bard himself.
If grunting is a sound humans make, the association of grunting and laborious work might have its origins in Hamlet’s famous “To be, or not to be” soliloquy:
Who would fardels [or burdens] bear To grunt and sweat under a weary life But that the dread of something after death The undiscover'd country from whose bourn No traveller returns, puzzles the will And makes us rather bear those ills we have Than fly to others that we know not of?
If Shakespeare is to be believed, the only thing less enjoyable than doing work that makes one “grunt and sweat under a weary life” is death.
Skipping ahead a couple of centuries, the Urban Dictionary – a crowd-sourced resource of idiomatic and slang expressions – defines a grunt as a low-ranking soldier. The Online Etymology Dictionary says the idiom first emerged as military slang during the Vietnam War and was first recorded in print in 1969, but "grunt work" as slang for menial, physically demanding labor has been around since the early 1900s.
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