More About the P Word

These 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.

In 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 this.

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 practitioners.

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.

What 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.

No 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.

Furthermore, 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.

To 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.

Whatever 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.

For 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.

So 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 of distinction.












©Al Katz • Prof. of law SUNY, Buffalo, 1969-1989 (ret.)