I was reading James C. Scott's Two Cheers for Anarchism (2012) and came across this curious use of the word "labor."

Besides wondering whether utter penury lay ahead for them and what role I might have in it, for my hosts there was the more immediate question of my frail comprehension of German and the danger it posed for their small farm. Would I let the pigs out the wrong gate and into a neighbor's field? Would I give the geese the feed intended for the bulls? Would I remember always to lock the door when I was working in the barn in case the Gypsies came? I had, it is true, given them more than ample cause for alarm in the first week, and they had taken to shouting at me in the vain hope we all seem to have that yelling will somehow overcome any language barrier. They managed to maintain a veneer of politeness, but the glances they exchanged at supper told me their patience was wearing thin. The aura of suspicion under which I labored, not to mention my manifest incompetence and incomprehension, was in turn getting on my nerves.

I decided, for my sanity as well as for theirs, to spend one day a week in the nearby town of Neubrandenburg. Getting there was not simple. The...

Does it mean that the author was struggling against that aura of incompetence he was perceived to exude?

  • Please first accept, "… the word labor…" has no place in this context. Of course, "labored" is derived from "labor" but if that matters, it's up to you to explain how. Asking generally about the broad concept - not the word - of "labor" would be a very different thing. Nov 19, 2021 at 21:00

4 Answers 4


This definition fits:

AHD labor

verb 4. To suffer from distress or a disadvantage:
labored under the misconception that others were cooperating.

This one, too:

Merriam-Webster labor

verb 3: to suffer from some disadvantage or distress
labor under a delusion

And this one:

Free Dictionary labor

  1. (usually foll by: under) to be burdened (by) or be at a disadvantage (because of):
    to labour under a misapprehension.

The last definition points out that labor in this sense is usually followed by under, and the other pertinent examples, as well as your example (under which I labored), use the same preposition.

The quote specifically mentions the aura of suspicion, which does seem to be suspicion of incompetence.

  • 1
    Note: Brits and their fellow BrE speakers write 'labour'. Nov 18, 2021 at 12:19
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    I am neither a Brit nor a speaker of British English. I think what @MichaelHarvey means to say is "non-Americans". Nov 18, 2021 at 20:22
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    @DawoodibnKareem - it would be inaccurate and misleading if I wrote 'non-Americans'. if you write 'labour', 'colour', 'favour', etc, you are using the British spelling convention, whatever your nationality. Nov 18, 2021 at 20:55
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    There are dozens of varieties of English whose speakers use the "-our" spellings of words like colour and labour. The fact that some of those varieties of English are found in the United Kingdom doesn't make all of us British. @MichaelHarvey has dismissed the English of Canada, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, India, South Africa and a bunch of other countries from consideration. On the other hand, I have yet to encounter a variety that uses the "-or" spellings, other than those whose speakers are from the United States. Nov 19, 2021 at 20:59
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    @DawoodibnKareem - "MichaelHarvey has dismissed the English of Canada, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, India, South Africa and a bunch of other countries from consideration." I am not aware of having done that. Nov 19, 2021 at 21:01

To labour under a/the delusion / misapprehension / misunderstanding... is effectively a "frozen form / set phrase". Here's a chart showing just how far usage has declined over the past couple of centuries...

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Back in the 1800s, the most common nouns identifying things one might metaphorically labour under were disease / disadvantage / [bad] effects / influence, but you'll rarely find those references in current use.

To the extent that the usage still occurs at all today, most instances are more strictly limited to the sub-sense of "mistaken thinking, false impression" (delusion / misapprehension..., as initially identified above).

It's slightly "literary" today to say He ignored her because he was labouring under the impression she wasn't interested, but that specific sub-sense usage isn't particularly unusual even today. On the other hand, it would be very unusual to hear someone today say anything like The boy was labouring under a disease of the skin called pompholyx diutinus.

TL;DR: Avoid the usage today, or at least restrict your usages to labouring under [erroneous thinking]

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    I guess a question to ask would be what the time setting of the book is? While it was written fairly recently, the author may be intentionally using outdated language to be more historically accurate to the story's setting. Nov 19, 2021 at 15:24
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    We can easily see from preceding text that the writer really wants to show off and play with idiomatic expressions. I don't recognise any of the references to pigs + wrong gates, geese being given feed intended for bulls, and locking barn doors to keep gypsies out, so my guess is the actual writer (as opposed to the "1st person narrator" in the book) does in fact know German very well (and those are references to German idiomatic usages). But regardless of whether my guess there is correct, it's obvious the text is very carefully constructed at the level "choice of idiomatic phrasing". Nov 19, 2021 at 16:17
  • ...but if I may "nitpick", I suggest that the overall "tone, register" of the text as presented is well-educated late Victorian. Which is completely incompatible with that final getting on my nerves (a relatively recent, "low register" turn of phrase). Nov 19, 2021 at 16:22
  • ...Thinking to back up my final assertion above, I was much gratified to see this as the top result I got by googling "get on my nerves" origin - “Getting on someone’s nerves” is a relatively new idiomatic expression which was initially used in 1922 by an Irish novelist James Joyce. (But "an" Irish novelist? "The" Irish novelist! :) Nov 19, 2021 at 16:30
  • @FumbleFingers: (One of the two, certainly :) Nov 19, 2021 at 22:30

No, it doesn't; not at all, even if we ignore the great danger of changing "manifest (anything)…" into something anyone "was perceived to exude…" Please always remember that as soon as you do that, you make the Question about your transcription, not the original passage.

For that part, "… not to mention…" was the operative phrase and indeed, we shouldn't.

"… (anything) under which I laboured…" means "the circumstances under…" or "the situation in… which I worked."

The Question here looks simple but in fact it's complicated, unless we make some deletions…

If it were purely about vocabulary, the word "labor" would just mean "work" but any useful Answer depends on idiom, not simple vocabulary or syntax. (This Question might better have asked what "labored" meant though still, that's simply "worked".)

The useful Question would be what "under which I labored" meant.

Can we replace "aura of suspicion…" with "(whatever)…"? Can we leave aside "incompetence and incomprehension…"? If not, why not?

If we don't, we'll be largely mired in mud.

If we can, what matters in "under which I labored…" is the whole, not the parts.

If one part mattered more, that would be the "… which…" Here, that describes the circumstances under which whoever it was - you/I/he/she/they/anyone - laboured (there I've slipped into British spelling. Please treat each as equal)


My understanding, as a native speaker, is that it is simply the normal meaning of labored: “worked.”

The aura of suspicion under which I labored …

It's true, as several answers have mentioned, that labored under occurs most commonly in several fixed phrases, such as labored under the delusion of X and labored under the misapprehension that X. They mean, roughly, “made one's own life harder believing X, which was not true.” As @DavidSiegel points out, there are other uses of labored under as a phrasal verb, but they're not common in contemporary English.

I think the author may be alluding to that usage (consciously or unconsciously), but they are not using one of those fixed phrases here. An “aura of suspicion” isn't a delusion or other incorrectly held belief. It's just a description of something that the author experienced.

So my interpretation is to take the phrase at face value. The author “labored” — that is, worked — and they did so “under” an “aura of suspicion” — that is, while feeling the suspicion and doubt emanating from their employer like an aura.

The syntax here is the same as the phrase the roof under which I labored. Usually under describes relative location, and while an “aura of suspicion” is more abstract than a roof, it makes sense if you envision it as a dark cloud surrounding the author while they labor.

In the end, I think this phrase is ambiguous — possibly intentionally, but we can't really know. My suggestion, to someone learning English, is to avoid the phrase labored under unless you are using it as part of a fixed phrase.

  • -1 "Labored under" can also be used for any burden or disadvantage, not just a mistaken belief. it is an older usage, now literary, but not archaic or obsolete Nov 20, 2021 at 4:21
  • @DavidSiegel But this was written in 2012. Nov 20, 2021 at 4:30
  • Yes. I haven't read the source work, and not enough context is provided to be sure, but I strongly suspect that it is describing a scene from the past. ords like "penury " suggest this, that is now a rare usage for "poverty". That this was in fact written rather recently explains the apparent anachronism of "getting on my nerves" the author is trying to suggest an earlier period by diction and slipped up in that case. Nov 20, 2021 at 4:36
  • Besides, "labored under" cancan still be used for any burden or disadvantage, even in modern writing. A bit affected perhaps, clearly literary, but not obsolete. Nov 20, 2021 at 4:38
  • @DavidSiegel I think that makes the meaning of "labored" in this quotation ambiguous at best, then. I'm not sure there's enough evidence to disprove either of our interpretations. Nov 20, 2021 at 4:41

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