Roster, rota, schedule – a little word research

Roster, schedule and rota are the three most common English terms for employee time management or workforce management systems, with one term commonly favoured over the others between English speaking countries.

The standard in Australia and New Zealand is roster, with schedule being less common and rota rarely used. In the UK, all three are used, with rota being more common. In the US, schedule is the favourite.

We did a little investigation into the word history (etymology) of these three words and found a few interesting points.

A brief history

The noun ‘roster’ has a lot more to do with food that it has to do with plotting time management. The English roster is derived from the Dutch noun rooster, which was inherited from Middle Dutch roosten. Interestingly, roosten was an old Dutch verb for ‘cook’, so the connection between it and rooster – a name for the grid of iron you lay over a fire or place in the oven to cook – is clearly logical. But how did the word jump from the culinary to the management world as it jumped from Dutch to English?

Apparently the traditional grid-style table that employee shifts were drafted onto reminded people of the gridiron that people cooked on. Perhaps the adoption of roster in the early eighteenth century occurred during a time when people in the Netherlands and England thought more about their stomach than their watch.

The evolution

The evolution of schedule is a bit more straightforward. Its origins are the Greek skhida – “splinter” – which led to the Latin schida and schedula – the former for the strips of plant matter that were hammered together to form papyrus, and in time, the latter for the strips of paper themselves. This was inherited in the French cedule, which led to the English noun we know today.

The British English soft ‘c’ pronunciation is due to French inheritance, while the U.S. English hard ‘c’ pronunciation is thanks to the efforts of the patriotic Noah Webster – of dictionary fame – who encouraged a return to the Greek style ‘k’ sound so as to differentiate the New World language from its oppressive British roots.

The difference between roster and rota sounds small, but etymologically it’s large. Rota stems from the same word in Latin which stands for wheel, indicating the cyclical nature of week-to-week time management.

Which do you use?

We can only suppose how each became the dominant term in each country. Perhaps the Latin-speaking Roman heritage of ancient Britain led to rota being favoured, while the secessionist mindset of the United States saw them adopt the schedule alternative. And maybe Australians just liked the way roster sounded. Who knows? We’ll have to track down an etymologist…

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