Brandon Wilner ……… blog

02 Feb 2021
Evil Words: hustle

[This post is an entry in Evil Words, a work in progress.]


1) To sell or promote energetically and aggressively. [Merriam-Webster]

1) A source of income or paid job, sometimes by means of deception and fraud. [OED]

In 1908 Rudyard Kipling defined the “unworthy superstition of ‘hustle’” as “half-doing your appointed job and applauding your own slapdasherie for as long a time as would enable you to finish off two clean pieces of work.”¹ The word appears twice in H.L. Mencken’s The American Language, originally published in 1919. First, when discussing Shakespeare and Chaucer in a section on old words that appear new, he notes (with no example) that “Even to hustle, it appears, is ancient.”² And later when citing H. W. Horwill’s Dictionary of Modern Usage, he lists “hustle” among those many words that are on their way to naturalization in U.S. English.³

“[T]he argot of the colored waiters” in Washington, D.C. was an inspiration for Mencken’s book,⁴ and although he does not specifically refer to the word as coming from this argot, subsequent use suggests that the sense of doing whatever is necessary in order to achieve a goal came from Black dialect. Per Malcolm X’s Autobiography, which included a chapter titled “Hustler”: “The main thing you got to remember is that everything in the world is a hustle,”⁵ and “I can’t remember all the hustles I had during the next two years in Harlem, after the abrupt end of my riding the trains and peddling reefers to the touring bands.”⁶ This sense of the word probably arose from the high rates of unemployment that Black people experience in the U.S., which were markedly higher throughout the twentieth century. Full-time work was more difficult to come by, and so a series of gigs, some above board and some below, became a common method of survival for Black people. The racialized connotation may be why hustling came in the broader vernacular to be associated with practitioners of the illicit: drug dealers, pimps, prostitutes, and con men. The word proliferated all across popular culture in the second half of the twentieth century, becoming especially prominent in hip-hop songs wherein rappers told of their exploits in the streets, at once reclaiming and glamorizing the idea of having a hustle.

In the twenty-first century, the growing problem of underemployment has produced the “gig economy,” in which workers of all kinds are made to take on “flexible” (see entry: flexible) gigs with companies like Uber, DoorDash, and Airbnb. Because these workers are classified as “contractors” or “partners” instead of employees, the companies are not obligated to provide health insurance benefits, paid time off, or general protections, and the workers have little power to argue for better pay or working conditions. This imbalance necessitates multiple sources of income; a gig worker may act as a tutor, driver, and delivery person all in the same week.

In order to entice workers into such a relationship, companies that require gig labor have come up with a rebranding scheme [see entry: brand], that of the “hustle.” In this conception, the gig worker does not helplessly watch the steady deflation of their spirits through work whose compensation becomes less tenable by the day. They are instead like the intrepid Malcolm X taking the train all over uptown armed with a .45, doing what they can to get by using every ounce of street smarts and ingenuity they possess. But hustling for gig-economy companies is legal, so contemporary hustlers need not worry about run-ins with the law like the hustlers of old did. It is instead the companies who concern themselves with the law, for they are in the process of changing it. Competitors like Uber and Lyft have banded together to push legislation enabling them to continue the practice of working with contractors rather than employees. The resemblance to cartels shaking down the honest business is clear, and it begs the question of “who is hustling whom?”

The homogenization process exemplified by a word like “hustle” is a general tendency of bourgeois language under neoliberalism, the beneficiaries of which cannot help but make light of social ills. The use of words such as “crack” as a stand-in for a food item’s addictiveness or “homeless” to describe schlubby dress are other examples. But the rebranding of “hustle” has an additional insidious layer: not only is it borrowed from a practice that stems from racialized unemployment, but the word’s popularity from this earlier context has been recursively absorbed into the project of seducing and placating a new class of unemployed and underemployed workers. “Hustle” is an accurate term for how many work in the twenty-first century, but rather than a means of confronting a harsh reality, its contemporary incarnation is meager fantasy used to paper over a decaying structure. Once the temporary condition from which one could hope to escape, hustling is on its way to becoming the only option.

¹ Kipling, Rudyard. Letters to the Family: Notes on a Recent Trip to Canada. Macmillan, p. 25.
² Mencken, H. L. The American Language: An Inquiry into the Development of English in the United States. 1919. Alfred A. Knopf, 1949, p. 128.
³ Ibid., p. 227.
⁴ Ibid., back cover.
⁵ X, Malcolm. The Autobiography of Malcolm X. 1965. Ballantine Books, 1984, p. 48.
⁶ Ibid., p. 108.