The difference between being idle and being lazy

Time was I would be able to go the National Gallery on my lunch break and watch repeats of Frasier while I dealt with the post in the mornings. Sometimes I would sit in Trafalgar Square reading art history, or walk around St James’ Park and see the pelicans. I used to go to talks and lectures, during the day or straight after work. Heck, when it was really quiet we used to go drinking at lunch on the terrace looking over the Thames. There were days when this was marvellous and days when it was part of the mind-flogging inertia of working in Parliament, which is as quiet as a morgue during recess.

That’s the trouble with being idle. Sometimes it helps you think, and enjoy leisure. But sometimes it’s just bad for you. Sometimes you aren’t being idle, you are being lazy. There’s a big difference. We can illustrate this with etymology.

Idle comes from the Old English idel, which means “empty, void; vain; worthless, useless”. Keynes talked of ‘factories sitting idle’ in a recession: literally, the factories were empty and therefore worthless. It would make no sense to talk about factories sitting lazily. As the marvellous Online Etymological Dictionary says, Idle threats preserves this original sense.

But, of course, idle can mean lazy. An idler is a shirker, a skiver, a truant, a slacker, a dullard, a lazybones. Idleitis is the illness we sarcastically say that lazy people have. Often when we talk of being idle we mean someone doing the wrong thing, that is to say not doing what they should be doing, or doing what they should not. The devil makes work for idle hands.

This sense of “not employed, not doing work” was, according to the Online Etymological Dictionary: ‘in late Old English in reference to persons; from 1520s of things; from 1805 of machinery. Meaning “lazy, slothful” is from c. 1300. In Elizabethan English it also could mean “foolish, delirious, wandering in the mind” — (as we often were after lunch on the terrace.) In the 1650s it acquired the sense to waste time as a verb. Idle the hours away.

And then came the re-ordination of idleing by the wits. Samuel Johnson created a magazine called The Idler, promoting the idea that, “Every man is or hopes to be, an Idler.” Johnson wittily promoted the idea that being idle had many benefits, and tells us he writes for the benefit of his fellow idlers, ‘who awake in the morning, vacant of thought, with minds gaping for the intellectual food, which some kind essayist has been accustomed to supply.’ Blogs, anyone?

And in some senses he took this literally, writing Idler articles straight off in a single quick draft, while the messenger waited to carry them off to the printer. It reminds me of Boris Johnson who was once tracked down by the staff editor at the Telegraph when he was late with his column. Although Johnson was having lunch at a friend’s house he dictated a whole article down the phone which needed no correcting.

But Samuel Johnson wasn’t an un-ironic, uncritical promoter of idleness. We are talking here about the man who produced thousands of articles, an edition of Shakespeare, Rasselas, a thick wad of poetry, the Life of Savage, the monumental Lives of the Poets, and a historic dictionary that took many years of work involving only a small staff. As well as that he wrote a failed tragedy and founded a school that folded. He’s famous for staying in bed and reading The Anatomy of Melancholy all morning, but he was also a work horse who idled after he could afford it. “He that never labours may know the pains of idleness, but not the pleasure.”

And Johnson’s standards are exceptional. He called himself idle at Oxford, but he also said he had never known a man to study hard. He stunned his admissions tutor by quoting the obscure Latin writer Macrobius — indicating a great breadth of study. As a young man trying to get started in London he was hard working and thrifty. He was a prodigious reader with a gifted memory. He stitched books in his father’s shop. He was also deeply religious and never satisfied with himself when measured against the standards of Christian ethics.

He wasn’t idle: he was a hard worker with high standards and a tremendous sense of disappointment in his own success. However, this sense of an idler as something to be proud of has taken hold. Johnson’s dictum, ‘As pride sometimes is hid under humility, idleness is often covered by turbulence and hurry,’ could be the motto for many content creators out there today.

And that brings us back to what lazy means. Here’s the Online Etymological Dictionary again: ‘1540s, laysy, of persons, “averse to labor, action, or effort,” a word of unknown origin. In 19c. thought to be from lay (v.) as tipsy from tip.’ As you can see, Johnson was not averse to labour, action or effort. Being an idler isn’t about not doing very much.

Lazy gets used to mean making something easier in a sense that corrode morals. ‘Lazy-tongs is from 1785, “An instrument like a pair of tongs for old or very fat people, to take anything off the ground without stooping”.’ There’s also an entry in the Online Etymological Dictionary for lazy man’s load: “Lazy people frequently take up more than they can safely carry, to save the trouble of coming a second time.”

It’s this sense that we talk about more often these days. The so-called life hacks, clever time-saving tricks. Sometimes this is productive and helpful; sometimes it’s an excuse to cruise. Like the old Bill Gates thing about finding a lazy person to do a hard job because they’ll find a way to make it easy. This ‘scientific proof’ that being lazy is a good thing gets used by people to justify a half-arsed job, but that sure as hell isn’t what Samuel Johnson was talking about.

There’s a real distinction here between people who alternate between hard work and idleness and people who live an easy life. Being idle is a good thing for all of us, sometimes. Being lazy isn’t.

Tom Hodgkinson in How to be Idle, which is a good book so long as you don’t take it too seriously or read it too thoroughly, makes the case for idling being about working less. All the arguments are somewhat tongue in cheek, as you’d expect from someone who thinks capitalism and the industrial revolution are the idler’s biggest enemies. (I prefer the way Thomas Bevan makes the case, in The Misery Tax.)

But the problem is, we can’t all toss off the equivalent of Rasselas in ‘the evenings of a week’ to pay the bills. Not everyone who takes Tom Hodgkinson’s advice will discover their true calling and change their life.

Being idle works well for the creatively intelligent, the people well suited to certain work patterns, and the lucky. More often than not, being idle is a bigger detriment to people’s wellbeing than grinding out a day at work. For everyone who loses their job and founds a business, there are many more who sit at home not learning the guitar and running out of money. Those people end up back in similar lives, maybe somewhat adjusted to meet their needs better.

And those adjustments are the key. When else were we able to make so many adjustments to help us avoid the miseries of work? Does Tom Hodgkinson honestly want to trade places with the labourers of pre-Industrial Britain? Working the fields for small wages, without indoor plumbing, central heating, out of season food, fridges, books, antibiotics, reliable medicine, Netflix, modern banking, and the welfare state doesn’t sound like an idler's paradise to me.

In fact, I think the real reason for the rise of idlers is that we are finally rich enough to be more idle. Tyler Cowen makes the compelling argument that people actually enjoy work. Why else do they do so much of it at a time when there are many more options available? But in many ways, profitable idleness — recommended by Hodgkinson and Bevan — are only possible because we have jobs in a capitalist system.

Far more of us than ever before can take sick leave, go to lunch, skive off without repercussions, do nothing without fear of consequences, take up hobbies like fishing at the weekend or learn philosophy in our spare time. Time was when getting into Plato’s Academy was a tough job for the non-elite. Today we can all spend our evenings learning whatever we want, online or in person, ironically enough because of businesses like Hodgkinson’s.

Like Jack Gilbert said, ‘The best is often when nothing is happening.’ But that’s only true in contrast to the rest of our lives, and especially now when the risks of doing nothing are so much smaller.

Thanks for reading. If you’re enjoying The Common Reader, let your interesting friends know what you think. Or leave a comment at the bottom.

Leave a comment


If you don’t subscribe to The Common Reader, but you enjoy reading whatever’s interesting, whenever it was written, sign up now.