ARL Archive · Know Your Words

Where Is All This Productivity “Leading” Us?

Does breaking shit count as productivity?

If I had walked by it on a sign or a poster, the headline, “How one notebook could replace all the productivity apps that have failed you,” would have stopped me in my tracks. I was sitting down when I encountered it, though, so it didn’t. In fact, it didn’t stop me from doing anything, because I was at work, sitting in my cube, and browsing Twitter. I was not in any way being productive, but this headline — from an article on the Popular Science website — did get me thinking about the word productive and what is required to label one’s self as such.

As the headline suggests, we’re all a little obsessed with being productive these days. (Although I can assure you that no “productivity apps” have failed me — ever — because I don’t use them.) Yet, do even know what it means to be productive? In my experience, most folks use the word to mean “getting things done” either at work or around the house. I wonder, though; does productivity always result in some product? Is productivity something that only happens at work? Can you be productive at something that others might consider pointless or a waste of time (e.g., my work on this blog)? Can you be a productive sleeper? It’s questions like these that I’ll attempt to answer with this blog post and, as usual, I’ll start with a definition.

Given the gravity of this post, I decided to start by reaching for the biggest gun in my lexicographical arsenal: The (compact) Oxford English Dictionary. It defines productive as follows:

1. Having the quality of producing or bringing forth; tending to produce; creative, generative
2. That causes or brings about; that results in; causative
3. (In economics) That produces or increases wealth or value; engaged in the production of commodities of exchangeable value; especially in productive labor
4. That produces readily or abundantly; fertile, prolific

As usual, I consulted other dictionaries too and all define productive in similar ways, so I’ll spare you the superfluous definitions. I will not, however, spare you a trip down etymology lane, as peering into the word’s history will help me answer my questions.

The Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories doesn’t have an entry for productive, so we’ll have to settle for produce.

Produce [late Middle English] The first sense recorded was ‘provide something for consideration’ (as in produced a contract). It comes from Latin producere, from pro- ‘forward’ and ducere ‘to lead.’ Current noun senses (as in farm produce, produce of their joint efforts) date from the late 17th century. In the late Middle English period, the Latin verb producere also gave riser to product (as a mathematical term) from Latin productum ‘(something) produced.’ Production via Old French from Latin productio; and early 17th century productive from French productif or late Latin productivus.

The (Ayto) Dictionary of Word Origins sings a similar refrain:

Produce To produce something is etymologically to ‘lead it forward,’ a meaning still discernible beneath the veil of the metaphor that clothes the modern English word’s range of meanings. It comes from the Latin producere, a compound verb formed from the prefix pro- ‘forward’ and ducere ‘lead’ (source of English duct, duke, educate, introduce, etc.)

Can you be a productive idler?

Really, duke? Really. The oddly long Origins: A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English doesn’t even have a proper entry for produce, it merely directs the reader to duke, where he or she finds the following: “Latin dux, leader, hence chief … from ducere, draw to oneself, draw on or along, to lead, conduct.”

It’s here that our etymological journey ends and brings us back to doorstep of productive, for as Mr. Ayto so astutely points out, when you get right down to it, what we mean when we say we’re being productive is simply that we’re moving things along in the desired direction (aka: forward).

Yes, when we’re productive we “bring forth” stuff, or our activity “results in” something, or creates something of value (be it direct or indirect). Our creative powers may even be so productive that we earn a reputation as a “prolific” songwriter or author. Yet, even in these instances, what we’re doing is moving things along toward some desired goal.

Thus, herein lies the answer to my initial question: Does productivity always result in some product? The answer is yes, and that product is movement, advancement, progress toward … something.

That is, we are productive at work or around the house when we are moving through the chores or tasks before us. We can be productive when performing activities others deem a waste of time as long as what we’re doing leads somewhere (like the long-overdue end of this post or fresh blog content). We can even be productive sleepers as long as our rest leads us to feeling well-rested.

And hey, if you made it all the way to the end of this post, I hope your efforts have led you to a better understanding of the word productive.


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