from The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, 5th Edition.

  • noun A laborer, especially one employed in construction or excavation projects.

from The Century Dictionary.

  • noun Same as navigation, 4.
  • noun Same as navigator, 2.
  • noun A common laborer engaged in such work as the making of canals or railways.
  • noun A power-machine for excavating earth.

from the GNU version of the Collaborative International Dictionary of English.

  • noun engraving Originally, a laborer on canals for internal navigation; hence, a laborer on other public works, as in building railroads, embankments, etc.

from Wiktionary, Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike License.

  • noun a laborer on a civil engineering project such as a canal or railroad

from WordNet 3.0 Copyright 2006 by Princeton University. All rights reserved.

  • noun a laborer who is obliged to do menial work


from The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, 4th Edition

[Short for navigator, canal laborer (obsolete).]

from Wiktionary, Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike License

From the navigation canals upon which these workers first toiled.


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  • The navvy was a fine specimen of humanity, with a complexion tanned a dusky coffee colour.

    The Right Stuff Some Episodes in the Career of a North Briton

  • "Sanitary Tom" (as the boys called the navvy who was his stout ally), had been at work laying bare the subterranean geography of our premises and making all right.

    Uppingham by the Sea a Narrative of the Year at Borth

  • It was in the formation of this, the true beginning of railways, that the British "navvy" was called into being.

    The Iron Horse

  • He can doff them and work like a 'navvy' when he sees reason.

    The Philosophy of the Plays of Shakspere Unfolded

  • "navvy," had just disposed of a supply of rugs and was wending his way homeward at the same time.

    I Married a Ranger

  • He felt weak and sore, and the pain of his smashed knuckles warned him that, even if he could find a job at navvy work, it would be a week before he could grip a pick handle or a shovel.


  • Oh, I sleep like a baby, eat like a navvy, and in years have not enjoyed such physical well-being.


  • It is a building where the homeless, bedless, penniless man, if he be lucky, may CASUALLY rest his weary bones, and then work like a navvy next day to pay for it.


  • He was good for nothing now except navvy work, and his broken nose and swollen ear were against him even in that.


  • He had done a few days 'navvy work when he could get it, and he had run around the Domain in the early mornings to get his legs in shape.



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  • "A drunken navvy ups with both hands the railings of an area, lurching heavily."

    Joyce, Ulysses, 15

    January 28, 2007

  • A construction worker; spec. a labourer employed in the construction of (originally) a canal, (now freq.) a road, railway, etc.

    Favorite Songs: "Navigator" by the Pogues. "Poor Paddy," trad., arr. Pogues. "The Navvy on the Line," trad. British/Irish (used in fife and drum).

    February 2, 2007

  • When I first saw this word I thought it was a bizarre misspelling of navy.

    My favorite lyrical usage is in Towers of London by XTC:

    Fog is the sweat of the never never navvies who pound

    Spikes in the rails to their very own heaven

    June 27, 2008

  • The derivation from navigator never seemed plausible to me, but is correct, apparently. Michael Quinion writes about it here, .

    Anyone who attended secondary school in Ireland is bound to be familiar with the work of a navvy. The infamous "Dialann Deorai", translated into English as "Irish Navvy : Diary of an Exile", was mandatory reading for the Intermediate Cert exam.

    Since there were pathetically few authors writing in Irish, the same few books showed up on the syllabus year after year. The other hardy perennials were the appalling, oppressive Blaskets memoirs:

    "An t-Oileánach" (The Islander), by Tomás Ó Criomhthain,

    "Fiche Blian ag Fás" (Twenty Years A-Growing) by Muiris Ó Súilleabháin,

    and the altogether execrable "Peig" by the batty old she-demon herself, Peig Sayers.

    The doom-and-gloom maunderings of this marginally literate peasant trio are brilliantly skewered in Flann O' Brien's An Béal Bocht (The Poor Mouth).

    July 11, 2008

  • Irish Navvy

    Blasket Islands

    July 11, 2008

  • (noun) - The use of the word navvy for a toiler, principally with a spade, is, I suppose, growing rare . . . Navvy may be deemed a nickname, and so "general labourer" is preferred. But the name navvy still heard in Britain has a history, and might well be a word of pride. It is short for navigator. It is true that this sort of navigator did not hold a master's certificate or stand at the helm on stormy nights; he was a land-animal. But we owe to him some benefits of the waterway, since without him there would have been no internal navigation of Britain . . . Explorers of our often neglected canals will there discover inns called after navigators. In them these brawney fellows, toiling without benefit of bulldozers and trenching Britain with their gruelling handiwork, slaked their thirst. And there the occasional . . . holiday amateur of canal exploration can take his beer still . . . Navvies have no reason to be rid of the abbreviated name, as though it were some term of contempt like the odious slavey and skivvy, once applied with a callousness now fortunately out of date, to women who did the roughest or simplest domestic tasks.

    --Ivor Brown's Words in Our Time, 1958

    January 15, 2018