Daily Archives: September 25, 2011

sinecure

What is more important to you: a job that is secure, or a job where you feel sincere? Do you want to increase your experience and efforts, or just your bank account? Would a position with no work and good pay be the cynosure that drew you forward, or a curse, a sin, worthy of censure?

Back when the Church was the great pan-European power, it could be very desirable to have a position as a priest in some parish; depending on the location, you might get a quite healthy income from it. Not everyone who got these positions – called benefices, because you benefited from them in money – was highly qualified, to be sure; one particularly poor example was the source of the word mumpsimus. But sometimes one could have a benefice without having to perform any priestly duties, such as, you know, helping the ailing soul. Such a do-nothing position with an income was called sine cura, “without cure”, not because there ain’t no cure for laziness but because it was not a position that involved cure of souls – i.e., priestly duties. Sine cura became our English word sinecure, which is normally pronounced as three syllables (only the last e is “silent”), but the i can be pronounced “short” or “long” (“sin” or “sign”).

The church’s dominating role has been taken over by commerce now. Everything must be justified in terms of profit. Never mind a nice ecclesiastical position; one would rather have a nice job in some Bay Street tower. Even better is to be a board member, and get a handsome income without having to show up and deal with the actual work day in and day out, just attend meetings as necessary, or perhaps not even that much. You’re basically on cruise. (Better still, of course, is to take the money you have and invest it and let other people do the work while you reap great profits. But that’s not considered a job – lately it seems to be considered more worthy than working, given that shareholders get more consideration than employees much of the time.)

So jobs still exist that people call sinecures – political patronage positions, nepotism installments, rubber-stamp board memberships, and so on. The question is, what does and doesn’t qualify? The term includes more than just jobs with no work at all; a job with light work might also be called a sinecure. But how light is light? I find, for instance, this in a book excerpt: “Dodd wanted a sinecure, a job that was not too demanding yet that would provide stature and a living wage and, most important, leave him plenty of time to write.” And in a comment on a New York Times article there is this: “The good teachers, who believe that teaching jobs in New York are not a sinecure for the bottom third of the graduating classes of the public colleges, will back her.”

I think it rather odd that one could ever consider teaching a sinecure (especially in New York)! If you held a teaching position but never had to prepare a lesson or stand in front of the class and talk, that might be a sinecure. But to actually do the job, even in an indifferent fashion? Yet here’s another comment from another article: “Administrators view teaching as a sinecure without intrinsic value.”

We seem to have a certain drift happening here. Sinecure is now becoming a word for any job that might indeed seem to others a sin, and to the holder a cure for having to put in an honest day’s efforts: a nice, sure, easy job with a good paycheque. You may not be flatlining in the position, but you are holding a steady sine wave, just the normal ups and downs, not unlike the n and u in this word.

Should the meaning broaden that way? If you don’t want it to, then use it in the narrower way and don’t use it in the broader way, and define it overtly as you want it. It may or may not have effect.

I will say this, though: at least no one can describe writing word tasting notes as a sinecure, involving as it does real work (if only an hour a day on average) and no pay at all. (One silly person wrote a comment complaining that I was probably supported by his tax dollars. Um. No. But I guess there ain’t no cure for cranks and trolls…)