Where does the term “white collar worker” come from and What does it mean?

A white collar worker is anyone who performs non-manual labor; a professional person, such as lawyer, doctor, banker, clergyman, etc.; specifically, an office worker, rather than a shop worker.

An anonymous newspaper columnist recently stated that the expression started “when medicine became a respected profession and doctors began to wear white collars as part of their uniforms.”

The statement is an absurdity on the face of it.

Medicine was “a respected profession” in the time of Galen and, though it may have fallen into some disrepute in the Middle Ages, it has certainly regained respect since the seventeenth century, long before the era of the white collar.

Actually the label is recent and wholly unrelated to medicine or to uniforms of any sort. Originally it was the counterpart of the British “black-coated worker,” a clerical employee, that is.

The term originated during World War I.

About Karen Hill

Karen Hill is a freelance writer, editor, and columnist. Born in New York, her work has appeared in the Examiner, Yahoo News, Buzzfeed, among others.

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