Why the depreciation of the amateur is just plain wrong.

[NOTE – this is re-post from the original incarnation of this blog.]

“She’s an economist when not competing in the modern pentathlon” says the BBC commentator, as I try to get my head around yet another sport I’ve never seen in my life, but inexplicably seem to be enjoying a lot more than I’d anticipated.It’s a timely reminder for me, on the final day of the Olympic Games, that many of the stars we’ve all watched and admired out there, get no financial reward for participating, and don’t get paid for pursuing their chosen sport at all. In fact, many have regular day jobs.

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Of course, the idea that the modern games was ever a purely amateur affair is a bit of a myth. There have always been sponsorships, scholarships, gifts, and competitors from communist states that are really full-time sportspeople. It’s a phenomenon they used to call “shamateurism”, and in 1971, acknowledging the situation, the IOC officially sanctioned professional athletes for all but a handful of sports.I don’t know what the mix of amateurs and professionals is at the 2012 games, but the mere presence of those who are doing it just for the love of their sport and personal satisfaction, is enough to remind me of a bugbear of mine in regards to modern phraseology.Here’s some etymology for you:

amateur 1784, “one who has a taste for (something),” from Fr. amateur “lover of,” from L. amatorem (nom. amator) “lover,” agent noun from amatus, pp. of amare “to love”

(from etymonline.com)

From the same Latin root as the English word “amorous”, to be an amateur – whether it be in reference to a sport, a hobby, a job, or any other task or activity – is to be nothing more than a person doing something for the love of it.

Being of the status “amateur” says nothing about whether or not you are any good at something, or dedicated to doing it, yet the word has been grossly depreciated by ridiculous expressions such as “amateur hour” or “a bit of an amateur”, while the word “professional” has been unjustly elevated to mean the opposite, in expressions like “very professional”.

The truth is that there are good and bad amateurs, and good and bad professionals in every area of life. As much as it’s true that the quality of some jobs may benefit from having people paid to do them, many of these will be jobs that people would never do for the love it. Where there’s a job or activity that spawns a large community of amateurs, chances are that they’ll produce results on par with, or better than, people who may just be doing it for the cash.

One great example is software, where freeware and shareware created by amateurs is sometimes far superior to commercial alternatives. The amateurs are usually making something they’ll actually use themselves, so will write it as well as they possibly can, without regard for the kind of commercial considerations that may hold professional software writers back.

That all said, there is one way in which the expressions make sense, and that’s in regards to jobs or activities requiring specialist equipment. An example would be astronomy, where all the skill and enthusiasm in the world can’t make up for not having mountain-top 8.2 metre telescopes at your disposal. However, luckily for astronomy, the nature of the discipline probably means that there are very few professionals who don’t love their job as much as the amateurs, and the amateurs themselves still contribute massively to the field. Other professions are not so lucky.

So perhaps amateurs lacking professional equipment was the original impetus behind these expressions. It’s just unfortunate that the unthinking have over-extended the scope of the phrases, simply because they don’t know what the word “amateur” actually means.
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