days the word PROFESSIONAL may be inserted in any sentence where
“good” might otherwise be appropriate. The advantage
of P-al is retreat it seem to distance subjectivism. That is,
the user of the term may behave as though there is already some
agreement about standards and the speaker is merely referencing
same rather than invoking her own idiosyncratic and quirky criteria
and judgment. It is this referential quality that echoes ancient
usage, that points back to centuries in which there were very
few P-als and even fewer P-ions.
those old days even Professors were not P-als, a term appropriate
for only ministers, physicians and lawyers. The term was academic
in the narrow sense: P-ion referred to the schools within which
the university that trained preachers, doctors and barristers.
While other fields of learning had their own departments, only
P-ions had schools. No doubt there was an excellent reason for
through the associations that they severally formed, these three
fields substantively controlled the behavior of practitioners,
or tried to, and therefore affected the form and conduct of
their education. In modern terms, the evaluation of the service
delivered was determined according to standards set by associated
This can hardly be the whole story since there were associations
of masons, carpenters, wheelwrights and other trades that set
standards of competence but had no claim to the “P”
word. The true P-ions distinguished themselves with a sense
of calling that provided them with some distance above the level
of a mere business or an even more grubby trade. Dedication
to a calling implied some higher purpose that helped insert
a status gap the manual trades could never close, though eventually
the cleaner and whiter ones -- teachers, social workers, architects,
engineers, chemists -- would do so without embarrassment.
modern usage really steals from the past, however, is the simple
notion of membership. If the “P” word does nothing
else it installs a discourse of membership and group where there
would otherwise be only individual and universal; person and
society as bookends. (Thus it is fun to think of the “P”
word as Tocqueville”s revenge.)
Where everybody drives an automobile, referring to someone as
a P-al driver locates his activity within a subset of persons
who drive in some specialized context or under particular conditions.
Plainly more can be said about this example since city taxi
drivers and endurance racers may both quality as P-al drivers.
doubt part of the “P” word’s appeal comes
from the part it plays in upgrading activities and functions.
When bank tellers become customer service specialists and custodial
engineers took charge of large buildings, it became possible
for a salesman to become a P-al and feel much better about his
long hours and lousy pay.
There is another sort of upgrading that is simultaneously and
(historical) downgrading. P-al also distinguishes people who
do for money what others do for fun or convenience. Jesus would
no doubt have been confused by the idea of a sex P-al. Though
the classical P-als tried top hide the money thing behind its
notion of calling, modern usage seems to regard the fact of
payment as some sort of upgrading. Even killers are entitled
to a touch of class when tagged as P-al hit-persons. It all
makes perfect sense, of course: in a theocratic age status augmentation
borrows things tainted with the divine, while in mercantile
periods things associated with cash provide the needed lifting
and shaping. So being a well paid seller is plainly better than
producing for any other sort of exchange or none at all. Lots
of people swim or play tennis but they are not in the market,
and the assumption is that if they were any good they would
be since the market is lucrative and everybody wants money.
Being in the market would also make them P-al.
being in a market also implies a sort of membership: the group
is smaller than the universe of persons who at some time do
the activity, even though it might remain quite large. A century
ago the market actor was distinct from his aristocratic counterpart,
the dilettante; today he shuns the bourgeois hobbyist. Modern
P-als are thus tied to the cash nexus.
some extent this market relation conflicts with assessments
of quality or competence. Given the general faith in market
judgments, so long as the money flows it is difficult to claim
that the actor is incompetent. A bad P-al artist seems faintly
oxymoronic -- like airplane food. So there are many contexts
in which the question “Is she a P-al?” is confusing
because there is reason to believe a question about quality
demands an answer in terms of payment. The point is easiest
to illustrate in the context of goods. “Is this a professional
hamburger?” (1)Yes, it was made at home by a Cordon Bleu
chef. (2) Yes, it’s a Big Mac. On the one hand, the whole;e
point of the P-al designation is to shrink the frame of reference
to a small group with independent control over standards. On
the other hand, market involvement throws open judgment to an
infinite mass of potential buyers. The unsuccessful P-al is
something of an embarrassment, but less visible than the star
hack. One might say that it is the function of certain rituals
like the Academy Awards to bring market and association judgments
into line and thereby affirm a continuing level of mutual trust.
substance there is to the designation tends to be trivialized
when applied to the manner, mannerisms or style of members.
Thus there arises the P-al way of speaking, walking or dressing.
Lavish costumes and vulgar speech are unP-al; so is high living
among those whose calling requires ascetic dedication, such
as athletes. While the core of the substantive rules never touch
such matters, there is a definite tendency for criticism to
assimilate all that is displeasing to the charge of unP-al.
Photo journalists are allowed to be slovenly, but a messy hotel
chef is unP-al. An ordinary woman in a skirt may cross her legs
carelessly, but in a judge the conduct is unP-al. The practice
eventually reveal itself as a cheap weapon in rhetorical terrorism.
The speaker attempts to make it appear as though an entire group,
upon careful deliberation, has aligned itself behind her opinion.
And so another skirmish in the war for control over actions
that struggle to be free of it.
those fond of dialectics the following might have some appeal.
The insularity and protectionism of associations generates a
variety of of rebellions that can be lumped together as do-it-yourself-isms.
Aided by technologies, P-ions are are invaded and devalued as
a consequence. House painting is an excellent recent example.
These same technologies simplify entry into fields providing
access to paid jobs offering experience and skill. In field
like house painting guild control collapses and ease of access
weakens the P-al distinction; when anyone who has had at least
one paid job gets to claim P-al status, the elitist drive must
move to another level to maintain distinction. Elite firms,
schools, journals are joined to major leagues, prestigious matches,
ranked theaters and command performances. In a world where may
are published, the question is by what house.
the “P” word is a small moment in the human comedy
where snobbism generates bandwagonism and begets vulgarism,
pushing the elite impulse ever onward and hopefully upward.
This forces the anti-elitist to become a yippee of language
by prefacing just about everything with the “P”
word. Inevitably this entails some bad manners and occasions
of unP-al conduct and stimulates elitists to find some new element