Labor and labour are different spellings of the same word. “Labour” is standard for British English, while American English uses “labor.”
What is the difference between labor and labour?
“Labor” and “labour” are two spellings of the same word:
- “Labor” is the preferred spelling for American English
- “Labour” is standard for British English (i.e., English spoken in England, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, etc.).
What if labor or labour is a part of a proper name?
Sometimes the correct spelling of labor/labour depends on whether the spelling appears in a proper name. For example, the Labour Party of the United Kingdom utilizes the –our spelling, yet we find the -or spelling for the Australian Labor Party (even though “labor” is the prevalent spelling in Australia).
So, which spelling should Americans use? According to Garner’s Modern English Usage, “… the better practice is to spell this proper name, like any other, the way the name holder spells it” (Garner 547). The AP Stylebook supports this suggestion, stating:
“British spellings, when they differ from American, are acceptable only in particular cases such as formal or composition titles: Jane’s Defence Weekly, Labour Party, Excel Centre, London Palladium Theatre, Wimbledon’s Centre Court.”
However, if labor/labour is not part of a proper name, it’s best to use the spelling most prevalent for a particular audience.
- “Ottawa is mulling ways to tap into the U.S. labour force as worker shortages loom on our side of the border, the federal immigration minister said Friday.” — CTV News [Canadian source]
- “The decision represents a shift for Uber, though the move was made easier by British labor rules that offer a middle ground between freelancers and full employees…” — The New York Times [American source]
What does labor mean?
The word labor (also spelled “labour”) is a mass noun and verb relating to the broader topic of work, whether it involves employment, social class, a political party, or childbirth.
Labor as a noun
The mass noun labor typically references physically exerting work (aka “manual labor“) or tasks that require mental effort (dull or difficult jobs), particularly when a worker’s wage contrasts to “those rendered by entrepreneurs for profits.” For example,
- “Field labor involves a lot of sweat, blisters, and backaches.”
- “The labor is strenuous, but it pays well.”
- “In the long run, anti-union measures disadvantage labor.”
“Labor” can also be a product of labor (such as one’s yield), while plural labors encompasses all the effort and strain associated with a particular task:
- “I want readers to enjoy my labor.”
- “Otherwise, my labors are for nothing.”
The mass noun labor may also reference a group of workers (collectively):
- “We are looking to hire non-union labor.”
Meanwhile, the noun laborer (plural laborers) specifically references an unskilled manual worker:
- “The farm hired a new laborer.”
- “North American laborers went on strike.”
As a modifier, the noun “labor” often references a social class of workers, political party, or a specific government department concerned with a national workforce:
- “Britain’s labour movement has taken hold of the country.”
- “The economic group is affiliated with members of the Australian Labor Party.”
- “Joining a labor union is in the best interest of workers.”
Last but not least, we can use the noun labor for “the process of childbirth,” which includes the onset of cervix dilation and uterine contractions (first stage) to child delivery (second stage):
- “She went into labor on Monday night.”
- “The epidural helped her stay calm through the second stage of labor.”
- “Induced labor may cause more painful uterine contractions.”
General labor: Assignment, chore, commission, job, mission, task, undertaking, work.
Difficult or dull labor: Bear, beast, burden, donkeywork, drudge, drudgery, effort, exertion, grind, headache, job, moil, strain, toil, travail, trouble.
Product of labor: Fruit, output, produce, product, yield.
Group of workers: Blue-collar, company, labor force, personnel, proletariat, staff, support, workforce.
Laborer: Blue-collar worker, drudge, hand, hired hand, grunt, menial, roustabout, toiler, worker, workhorse.
Giving birth: Birth, birthing, childbirth, delivery, nativity.
Labor as a verb
Definitions of the verb labor generally encompass strenuous mental or physical work, meaning:
- To work hard or with great effort (especially within manual labor);
- To work with difficulty or struggle despite one’s best effort;
- To move or proceed with difficulty (used with a directional adverb), or;
- (of a woman in childbirth) To be in the labor of giving birth.
- “Cement pourers labored from dusk till dawn.”
- “The Senator has been laboring against critics on all sides.”
- “Our team labored up the hill for nearly three miles.”
- “She labored well into the night.”
To work hard: Drudge, endeavor, exert, hustle, slave away, strain, strive, struggle, sweat, toil, travail, tug, work.
To give birth: Bear, birth, bore, deliver, have, mother, give birth, produce.
The not-so-common definitions of labor include:
- (mass noun): A group of moles, often of the animal family Talpidae.
- (noun): A measure of land area equal to 177 acres, as defined by Mexico’s Imperial Colonization Law of 1823.
- (verb): (of a ship) To roll or pitch heavily; to show signs of working.
- (verb): To till or break up the ground using a tiller.
Published examples of labor and labour
- “Labor denotes the endless, repetitive cycle of human activity necessary to keep ourselves alive on the earth.” — OUPblog
- “Long hours of manual labour in searing temperatures can result in heat stress, which can lead to organ damage, the report said.” — The Guardian
- “A simple rosary made with a piece of string and bread, likely made by someone who only received one portion of bread a day while doing hard labor in punishing weather.” — The Atlantic
- “Initial jobless claims unexpectedly jumped last week to their highest level in four months, the Labor Department said Thursday.” — Los Angeles Times
- “A progressive alliance might not be in the interests of Labour as a whole, but Lewis’s career would certainly benefit.” — Financial Times
- “At this point, it was pretty clear that I had prodromal labor, a sense of “fake labor” that feels like real labor but doesn’t dilate the cervix.” — Motherly
- “Writers must labor from a vague feeling, usually some large, old emotion, and in so laboring, come to understand the qualities of that feeling, and the source of it, and the reason they still feel it.” — The New York Times
- “Democrats have labored for months to craft an agreement that could pass the House, where the party can bear only three defections and still achieve a majority without GOP support.” — The Wall Street Journal
- “Effective immediately, laboring mothers are permitted two adult support persons for the duration of their stay (labor, delivery and post-partum).” — Hillsdale Daily News
- “At the turn of the 20th century, while visionaries in the United States and Europe labored on horseless carriages, Australians were also creating them.” — The New York Times
Etymology and word history of labor/labour
The spelling of labor stems from the Middle English adaptation of Old French labour (noun) and labourer (verb). However, both terms originate from Latin laborare or labor to mean “toil” and “trouble” (as in something that requires exertion and hardship like a job or a product of labor).
According to The Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories by Glynnis Chantrell, the term’s connotation of childbirth began in the 16th century through the sense of ‘exertion,’ whereas its association with working-class production came later in the 18th century. This time period is, perhaps, the more interesting part of the noun’s history, as historical events leading into Western modernity (e.g., industrialism, globalization, abolitionism, etc.) brought forth socio-economic and moral critiques that continue to inform linguists on the meaning of work, labor, class, production, capital, and, philosophically speaking, the subjective value of human life.
In fact, much of the modern definitions of labor — be it collectively or as the product of such — reflect the influence of 19th-century political theorists, to which political groups like the Labour Party could emerge for trade unions to represent Britain’s workforce over company management (Chantrell 292).
Additionally, Chantrell notes how the words laborer (noun) and laborious (adjective) emerged in Late Middle English with the more positive connotations of “hard-working” and “industrious,” the main difference being that these terms directly descended from Old French laborieux and Latin laborious instead (292).
“Labor” and “labour” are not the only words American and British writers spell differently. To learn more about these differences, be sure to check out the following lessons on The Word Counter:
- Among vs. amongst?
- Check vs. cheque?
- Gray vs. grey?
- Learnt vs. learned?
- Supper vs. dinner?
- Theater vs. theatre?
- Toward vs. towards?
Test how well you understand the difference between labor and labour with the following multiple-choice questions.
- True or false?: “Labor” is any endeavor involving physical or mental effort.
- The word “labor” entered Middle English from _________.
a. Old French
b. Old English
- Which of the following does not define “labor” as a verb?
a. To roll or pitch heavily
b. To work with difficulty
c. To experience the pangs of childbirth
d. None of the above
- The singular noun laborer is synonymous with ____________.
c. Blue-collar worker
- Which of the following sentences uses the incorrect spelling of labor/labour?
a. “Founders of the Australian Labor Party encouraged employees earning a low salary to join the picket line.”
b. “The US labour movement advocates for unskilled labour men.”
c. “The British Labour Party was founded during the second half of the 19th century.”
d. “The former US president rejoiced in the declining influence of the American Labor Movement.”
- When discussing the ________________, the correct spelling is always “labour” not “labor.”
a. Act of a mother giving birth
b. Physical exertions of childbirth
c. Contraction of the uterus
d. None of the above
- “Animal group names.” The Old Farmer’s Almanac for Kids, Yankee Publishing, Inc., 17 Sept 2019.
- Chantrell, G., Ed. “Labour.” The Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories, Oxford University Press, 2002, p. 292.
- Duehren, A., Rubin, R. “House Set to Approve $2 Trillion Social Spending and Climate Bill.” The Wall Street Journal, wsj.com, 19 Nov 2021.
- Friedersdorf, C. “How Far Should the World Go to Support Ukraine?” The Atlantic, theatlantic.com, 4 Mar 2022.
- Garner, B. “Labour Party; labor party.” Garner’s Modern English Usage, 4th ed., Oxford University Press, 2016, p. 547.
- Harper, D. “Labor.” Online Etymology Dictionary, etymonline.com, 2022.
- “Labor.” The Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Inc., 2021.
- “Labor.” The Merriam-Webster.com Thesaurus, Merriam-Webster Inc., 2021.
- “Laborer.” Lexico, Oxford University Press, 2021.
- “Labour.” Lexico, Oxford University Press, 2021.
- McQue, K. “Up to 10,000 Asian migrant workers die in the Gulf every year, claims report.” The Guardian, theguardian.com, 11 Mar 2022.
- Maloney, S. “Hannah Arendt and the source of human values.” OUPblog, Oxford University Press, 25 Oct 2017.
- Manguso, S. “Green-Eyed Verbs.” The New York Times, nytimes.com, 29 Jan 2016.
- Mellor, J. “Australia’s Once-Vibrant Auto Industry Crashes in Slow Motion.” The New York Times, nytimes.com, 12 Dec 2014.
- “Mexican Colonization Laws.” Texas State Historical Association: Handbook of Texas, TSHAOnline, 2022.
- Petitjean-Barkulis, C. “I Had Fake Labor and Still Birthed at Home.” Motherly, mother.ly, 22 Jun 2017.
- Puzzanghera, J. “Initial jobless claims unexpectedly jump 19,000 to a four-month high.” Los Angeles Times, latimes.com, 15 Jan 2015.
- “QUESTION from on Aug. 28, 2019.” Ask the Editors, AP Stylebook, 28 Aug 2019.
- Satariano, A. “In a First, Uber Agrees to Classify British Drivers as ‘Workers.’” The New York Times, nytimes.com, 16 Mar 2021.
- Staff. “Hillsdale Hospital returns to full visitation.” Hillsdale Daily News, hillsdale.net, 4 Mar 2022.
- The Canadian Press. “Canada should tap into U.S. labour pool: Kenney.” CTV News, ctvnews.ca, 16 Sept 2011.