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.