When I first discovered what seemed to be a spelling error in my mother’s correspondence, I felt a slight dismay and a little superiority. I was much younger then, in college, and thought I had finally gained more knowledge than she had about our common language. She was an avid reader, and though she had been unable to attend high school—the family needed the money she could earn—she had never stopped learning. She loved language (still does) and was and is a masterful punster. But to the point, I discovered in her letters the words “to-morrow” and “for-ever.” The hyphen, I believed, was an eccentricity of my mother’s, charming and incorrect. Later, when researching for my dissertation, I stumbled across an educator’s protest about the joining of “for” and “ever,” which forever lost a distinction. (I can’t recall the educator’s name, but will add it here when I do.) My mother had been correct, just past the time for that particular form.
Now, I’m very accustomed to the constant evolution of language, and accept new meanings and variations of spelling fairly quickly, though I may retain a distinction for a long time: “Lite” rather than “light” to describe less substance, especially pertaining to caloric value of food; “alright” rather than “all right” to mean “okay” in written dialog; “guys” to mean both men and women in informal settings.
But “work” has come to have a meaning that I resist a little. At some restaurants—even very nice ones—the server often says “are you still working on it?” I don’t want to be a language snob—we have too many of those as it is— but I think “work” in this sense is uncomplimentary to the customer and to the establishment. The only time I “work” on food is when I’m preparing it or when I’m forcing myself to eat some abhorrent food rather than offend a friend. I can understand the convenience of the phrase, which combines “are you finished” and “may I take this plate,” but I would rather hear either of those or a pleasant substitute.