I was having lunch with 15 friends and talking about the imminent departure of our very loud upstairs neighbour, who has made us feel like we were living under a busy R&B club for the last year and a half. I explained that the estate agents told me a couple had bought the flat and that I hoped they’d be two professionals.
"I’m surprised to hear so much snobbery coming from you, Céline," said Alison in a very, very disapproving tone.
"I’m not a snob! I just want neighbours who go to work in the day and have to sleep at night."
"So how many professionals are around this table?"
"16! We all have a job, don’t we?"
In fact, only five of us were professionals (one doctor, three teachers, one solicitor – as I translate this in French, I notice how interesting it is that these jobs all come in the masculine form). Alison shook her head and patiently explained to me that a professional is someone who has a job of a certain status, like a doctor or a lawyer. Marie piped in to explain how infuriating it was to look for a flat to rent recently, because a lot of ads indicated "professionals only", which seemed to her to suggest that only certain jobs are trustworthy. I then understood why saying that I want professionals as neighbours sounded like I wanted elite members of society to move in upstairs and hence Alison’s "j’accuse!" moment.
By way of coincidence, there was an article on "professionals" in the Guardian on the same day. It confirmed that the meaning and use of the word "professional" have changed over time. As is often the case, the etymology of the word gives us the key to its original meaning: the Guardian tells us that "‘Professionals’, such as teachers, doctors and lawyers used to assume a special, elevated position in the hierarchy of work", because they "professed – promised – to meet high moral standards."
However, this meaning has evolved, and today, "increasingly, to be ‘professional’ means that someone cares very deeply about their work." And that is the only meaning I knew for this word, which applies not only to the doctor, solicitor and teachers, but also to the civil servant, occupational therapist, web designer, postie, trainee nurse, education officer, probation officer, communications manager, translator, NHS senior manager and jewellery designer around the table.

By | 2016-10-18T15:50:24+00:00 July 12th, 2006|Words|4 Comments

About the Author:

I am Céline Graciet, a freelance English to French translator. Since 2003 I’ve been writing on all sorts of areas linked to translation and the life of a translator.


  1. Ron July 13, 2006 at 1:47 am

    Being in the US, I have no idea what a “postie” is, but I’m sure that a professional is one who performs his work for pay. This is the opposite of an amateur who does it for love, or fun. Thus we have amateur astronomers or athletes, who may be excellent, even world renowned, but receive no pay, as opposed to professional athletes or astronomers who get paid regardless of their skill level.

  2. céline July 13, 2006 at 9:40 am

    Postie = postwoman. An American friend of mine wrote me an email expressing the same views as you, so I can only imagine that the word “professional” is viewed slightly differently in US and UK English.

  3. Lisa July 14, 2006 at 1:25 pm

    As the NHS Manager sat at the table that day, I was thinking about how the word ‘professional’ is often used in the public sector – which is to describe someone who has a specific vocational qualification which relates to a specific field or focus/task e.g. nurse, teacher, nursery nurse, health visitor, youth worker, social worker, etc. I think it is often used in this way as short hand, for example if discussing who to send a particular leaflet to ie. if aimed at professionals then it is NOT for admin staff, buildings and maintenance, or anyone else who might also have a ‘professional qualification’ but one which might transfer to any field. it is also NOT for parents, patients, carers etc. I think in this sense we have adapted a mix of the US version (meaning ‘paid to do the job’) and the old english version meaning ‘respectable profession of high moral standing’). Doesn’t say much for those with transferable skills doing valuable jobs to keep the whole system moving such as admin, or carers, or cleaners, without whom the NHS would collapse!

  4. Stephen Gobin July 24, 2006 at 8:40 pm

    Translators certainly do not have the “professional” status accorded to doctors, lawyers, teachers, academics or any other of the liberal “professions”. And why? I think it’s because we are un unknown entity, a disparate community of (probably) mostly introverted people, busily tapping away on PCs in some corner of our homes. No wonder the work we carry out is an unknown for most people. Even the terms “translation” and “interpreting” seem to be interchangeable for a lot of people.
    So if our work has no “professional” status, we must console ourselves with the fact that we are “intellectuals” instead, because what else is our work if not an intellectual assault course from start to finish? And we all know that intellectuals, like all misunderstood writers and artists, are the oddballs who live in garrets!

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