By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
The compound adjective hard-working is of surprisingly old vintage: the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) traces it back as early as 1682, when Thomas Tryon used it in his book, Health’s Grand Preservative; Or The Women’s Best Doctor: ‘Hard working rough Trades and Imployments.’ And we all know what ‘hard-working’ means: it simply describes someone or something that works hard.
But there are other, and perhaps more eloquent ways of expressing this quality. For instance, if one wishes to emphasise a person’s hard-working nature as one of their strengths when writing them a job reference, or if you’re writing your own job application and want to draw attention to how hard-working you are, there are a number of other, handy words you can use instead of, or in conjunction with, that phrase.
Let’s take a look at some of the best synonyms for ‘hard-working’, followed by some of the best antonyms.
A good synonym for hard-working is INDUSTRIOUS, so let’s start with that word. It’s ultimately derived from a Latin word which means ‘build within’, but which came to mean ‘diligent’ (of which more in a moment) and then, in Middle French (as industrie) ‘skill’ or ‘ingenuity’. The word then made its way into English, where industry originally meant ‘clever working’ or skill in the execution of any task.
And ‘work’ is obviously a key part of the word industry and its various offshoots. An industrial dispute is one that occurs in the workplace, and working in industry means working in some sort of company or workplace, such as the manufacturing industry or the advertising industry. Being industrious is related to these work-focused words.
DILIGENT is a word with a similar meaning to industrious: it also means ‘hard-working’ or ‘constant in application’ – i.e., it denotes someone who works steadily and consistently at, or towards, something. It’s also derived from Latin: dīligent-em meant ‘attentive’ (i.e., to particular details or a specific task) and CAREFUL.
The OED tells us that diligent is ultimately from the present participle of the Latin verb dīligĕre meaning ‘to value or esteem highly, love, choose, affect, take delight in’. To be diligent is not only to work hard but to love one’s work – or at least, work so hard that it looks as though one loves it.
A word which is exactly synonymous with diligent is ASSIDUOUS, which also means ‘constant in application’. This one has a curious origin: it’s from the Latin verb assidēre meaning ‘to sit by’; the verb to assess is from the same root. So to be assiduous is literally to ‘sit down to’ a particular task, i.e., to apply oneself closely to it and work at it.
If being diligent and assiduous means being careful, the same focus on care in one’s work is also present in the adjective SEDULOUS, which is derived from the Latin sēdulus meaning ‘careful’.
Meanwhile, the word CONSCIENTIOUS is obviously related to conscience, as it refers to being scrupulous and COMMITTED to doing a job thoroughly and well. A conscientious worker takes pride in their work.
So far, we’ve been dealing with hard-working synonyms that throw the focus onto care and constant focus, but there’s also a group of synonyms which relate to a different aspect of hard work: namely, enthusiasm for the job. So a hard-working person might also be described as being ENTHUSIASTIC, KEEN, ZEALOUS, or ENGAGED when they complete their work.
Of course, they might be diligent and yet demonstrate no signs of enthusiasm for their job, but if these qualities are present, all four of these adjectives might prove to be of use.
Not too dissimilar to these enthusiastic synonyms are what we might call the ‘energetic’ synonyms, which imply a degree of verve and energy present in the hard-working person. So BUSY, ENERGETIC, and, most of all, DYNAMIC are all helpful words here.
This last word is from an ancient Greek term meaning ‘power’ or ‘strength’, because something dynamic produces motion: a dynamic worker is someone who gets things moving.
And as we mentioned committed a short while ago, it’s also worth mentioning the other adjectives which focus on someone’s determination to see a job through and produce the best work they are capable of: PERSEVERING, DETERMINED, and PURPOSEFUL are all of interest here.
Someone who is determined or dynamic is likely to keep going until the job is done, and so their energy and commitment appear to know no bounds. They are incapable of being tired out by the work: they are INDEFATIGABLE, and their commitment to their work is UNTIRING. So we might talk of an untiring effort made by a worker, for instance.
It’s perhaps easier to identify antonyms for ‘hard-working’ than it is synonyms. We seem to be more used to calling out idleness and a lack of diligence than we are to praising somebody’s dedication to their work.
So the common adjectives LAZY and IDLE both mean the opposite of hard-working, as do APATHETIC, SLUGGISH, LETHARGIC, and INACTIVE, all of which convey a lack of dynamism or energy. And if the person simply doesn’t care about their work, they might be described as INDIFFERENT.