December 24, 2012

"Professionalism" in America

Brian Garner complains in his Dictionary of American Legal Usage about how so many jobs are now said to be done by "professionals"--hairstylists, the "professional military," and so on--as opposed to the traditional three professions of law, medicine and the clergy.  Knowing a trade, or doing something for a living, does not make one a professional--that comes from the intellectual content of one's work.

There's a lot of what I think of as title drift, too: making work seem more sophisticated or, I hope, dignified, by giving old jobs more impressive titles.  Think of the "associates" at stores like Walmart or Target, who aren't associated with the store except as hourly employees.  I've heard employees at such places referred to as "partners," which twists beyond recognition both the commonly understood meaning of "partners"--individuals who jointly engage in some enterprise for the common and, I think, more or less equal betterment of both, or the legal definition of partners as joint owners with personal liability for the debts of the partnership.  The word "clerk" is a very old example of title inflation.  It's connected to the word "cleric," and suggested especially someone who could read and write because such skills were found only rarely outside those of the second estate.  This emphasis on reading and writing means "clerk" no longer signifies someone with a scholarly or religious background, but someone who keeps the books or other records in an establishment--think of clerks of court.  But "clerk" has been extended to people who have no advanced skills at all, particularly to those working at the counter at convenience stores.

Sometimes new names can be made up to enhance a profession.  H. L. Mencken's The American Language reports on National Association of Realtors trademarking the name "Realtor" for their real-estate-agent members (they still own the trademark) and undertakers beautifying themselves with the term "mortician."  It's a joke to call a garbage hauler a "sanitation engineer," but did you know that 9-1-1 dispatchers seem to really be called "public safety telecommunicators?"

No comments:

Post a Comment