Old English weorc, worc "something done, discrete act performed by someone, action (whether voluntary or required), proceeding, business; that which is made or manufactured, products of labor," also "physical labor, toil; skilled trade, craft, or occupation; opportunity of expending labor in some useful or remunerative way;" also "military fortification," from Proto-Germanic *werka- "work" (source also of Old Saxon, Old Frisian, Dutch werk, Old Norse verk, Middle Dutch warc, Old High German werah, German Werk, Gothic gawaurki), from PIE *werg-o-, suffixed form of root *werg- "to do."
Meaning "physical effort, exertion" is from c. 1200; meaning "scholarly labor" or its productions is from c. 1200; meaning "artistic labor" or its productions is from c. 1200. Meaning "labor as a measurable commodity" is from c. 1300. Meaning "embroidery, stitchery, needlepoint" is from late 14c.
Work of art attested by 1774 as "artistic creation," earlier (1728) "artifice, production of humans (as opposed to nature)." Work ethic recorded from 1959. To be out of work "unemployed" is from 1590s. To make clean work of is from c. 1300; to make short work of is from 1640s.
Proverbial expression many hands make light work is from c. 1300. To have (one's) work cut out for one is from 1610s; to have it prepared and prescribed, hence, to have all one can handle. Work in progress is from 1930 in a general sense, earlier as a specific term in accountancy and parliamentary procedure.
Work is less boring than amusing oneself. [Baudelaire, "Mon Coeur mis a nu," 1862]
Work and play are words used to describe the same thing under differing conditions. [attributed to Mark Twain]
a fusion of Old English wyrcan (past tense worhte, past participle geworht) "prepare, perform, do, make, construct, produce; strive after" (from Proto-Germanic *wurkjanan); and Old English wircan (Mercian) "to operate, function, set in motion," a secondary verb formed relatively late from Proto-Germanic noun *werkan (see work (n.)).
Sense of "perform physical labor" was in Old English, as was sense "ply one's trade" and "exert creative power, be a creator." Transitive sense "manipulate (physical substances) into a desired state or form" was in Old English. Meaning "have the expected or desired effect" is from late 14c. In Middle English also "perform sexually" (mid-13c.). Related: Worked (15c.); wrought; working.
To work in "insert, introduce or intermix," as one material with another, is by 1670s; hence the figurative sense "cause to enter or penetrate by repeated efforts." To work up (transitive) "bring into some state or condition" is by 1590s of material things, 1690s of immaterial things; hence "bring by labor or special effort to a higher state or condition" (1660s). The meaning "excite, stir up, raise, rouse" is from c. 1600. To work over "beat up, thrash" is from 1927. To work against "attempt to subvert" is from late 14c.
To work out "bring about or procure (a result) by continued labor or effort" is by 1530s. As "bring to a fuller or finished state, elaborate, develop," by 1821. Meaning "to solve, calculate the solution to" a problem or question is by 1848. Intransitive sense "make its way out" is from c. 1600; the sense of "succeed" is attested by 1909. Sense of "exhaust (a mine, etc.) by working it" is from 1540s. The pugilistic sense of "box for practice (rather than in a contest) is by 1927, hence the general sense of "practice, rehearse" (1929) and that of "take exercise" (by 1948).