We hear about professionalism all the time–being professional, acting professional–, but we may not know what it means or its origin. Many people might describe it as an attitude or disposition, perhaps a way of dress. “She wasn’t acting very professional; he wasn’t dressed professionally,” are common utterances. These are subjective statements, so let’s see if we can determine where this term came from and maybe how it’s used in the contemporary world. 

The root word, profess, derives from a Latin root that means ‘to take a vow’. More specifically, it means ‘to declare publicly’ or ‘to declare openly’. It’s a religious term akin to fealty.

From profess, we get to profession, which in Old French means ‘vows taken upon entering a religious order’. This was extended from theology to include law and medicine and then sciences and education. Appropriately enough, prostitution was added to the mix. By this time, the meaning had evolved to ‘occupation one professes to be skilled in or a calling’. This is where we jump to professionalism, which is where we are today. The bar is a bit lower in sports and entertainment, or perhaps the skilled portion is assumed. In these domains, it is meant to separate paid from unpaid (read: amateur) participants. For the record, an amateur is a lover of something. These people are in it for passion rather than money. The cynic in me says that some amateurs do it for the love of the game and the hope for a lottery payout, shooting for the big leagues.

The question remains how do we go from being skilled in something to the appearance of being skilled. In my experience, some people would prefer to work with a minimally-skilled person who looks the part than a skilled person who doesn’t. Certainly, one might argue that they prefer both, but we can’t always get what we want.

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