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According to Wikipedia, the phrase the world's second oldest profession is "spying" and the world's oldest profession is prostitution.

I was always raised with the understanding that prostitution was the world's second oldest (first could be trading), until I had a conversation today and went to go look it up. Now I see that I'm probably wrong. I've always used "second oldest" and never gotten a queer look regarding my use of that particular phrase, not even by English professors or literature enthusiasts.

Where did that phrase originate and about when? Have we always had it in English? Does it derive from an ancestor language?

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This isn't an answerable question IMO. However, I would say that people certainly do things which are not their profession, such as a hobby. –  horatio Sep 6 '11 at 16:34
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This isn't a question about English to me. Voting to close. –  simchona Sep 6 '11 at 16:58
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I also disagree about the vote to close! The FAQ states that questions include "Etymology (history of words’ development)" and I believe this question falls under that category. –  Josh Sep 6 '11 at 17:19
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@jcole: Please see my edits--I tried to maintain the crux of your question, and I will vote to reopen on the basis that this is now an etymology question. –  simchona Sep 6 '11 at 17:49
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It's a humorous saying in any language. Prostitution is not usually considered a profession in the same social register as others like judge/doctor/CEO. So you're expecting something like farmer or hunter, and ha ha, you said a dirty word (OK. one that prods the inner thirteen-year-old). This is not about English. –  Mitch Sep 6 '11 at 19:36
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closed as not constructive by KitFox, Mitch, mgkrebbs, Thursagen, kiamlaluno Sep 7 '11 at 11:16

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up vote 15 down vote accepted

On the origin of the expression “world’s oldest profession”, both etymonline and the wiktionary date its first recorded use to 1888. This would coincide with the use of the expression “the most ancient profession” by Rudyard Kipling in On the City Wall (1888):

Lalun is a member of the most ancient profession in the world. Lilith was her very-great-grandmamma, and that was before the days of Eve as every one knows. In the West, people say rude things about Lalun's profession, and write lectures about it, and distribute the lectures to young persons in order that Morality may be preserved. In the East where the profession is hereditary, descending from mother to daughter, nobody writes lectures or takes any notice; and that is a distinct proof of the inability of the East to manage its own affairs.

So, this is a relatively recent addition to the language (profession itself dates from circa 1200). I didn't find the exact first recorded use, but a Google ngram search clearly agrees that around 1890 is when the expression started to get widely used:

ngram

Before that, the expression had already been used and applied to other jobs, usually in pride. Some recorded uses that I could find include:

Other European languages have similar expressions, such as the French “le plus vieux métier du monde” (which translates exactly to the English).


On the issue of prostitution being or not a profession, I will quote the definition given by the New Oxford American Dictionary:

a paid occupation, esp. one that involves prolonged training and a formal qualification

So, prostitution is definitely encompassed into the broad scope of this definition. Moreover, in some countries, prostitution has a legal status that definitely classifies it as a regulated profession.

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Fantastic answer! I wish I could upvote this twice! –  Josh Sep 6 '11 at 19:42
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I think that you're possibly getting a bit too literal here, and looking too far back in time to get any realistic answers... Referring to prostitution as "the world's [second] oldest profession" is merely a way to indicate that prostitution has been around for the bulk of human history.

To realistically answer your question, one would have to define what constitutes a "profession" in the earliest times of Human history. Could you consider the hunting and gathering which our ancient ancestors did to be a "profession"? If so, then surely prostitution is neither the first nor the second. What about being chief of a tribe? Making tools or fire? Trade? There are lots of activities which occur in the earliest days of human beings.

Of course, sex between humans could be considered the very earliest thing in our history -- or else how did we get here? But I think pinpointing the first time in human history that an act of sex was prostitution verses the first time any other act was a profession is just too hard to do.

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The saying is not really meant to be taken literally. The point is that people have been selling sex from the beginning of time.

To be pedantic, prostitution is not a "profession" by any reasonable meaning of the word. Originally it was reserved for specific categories who make some sort of professional promise, and were thus help to a higher ethical standard, doctors, lawyers and the clergy. However, nowadays its meaning has morphed to mean any career path that requires significant amounts of training, and sometimes certification.

However, the Kama Sutra notwithstanding, I don't think that that description would allow the application of "profession" to a prostitute.

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prostitution is not a "profession" by any reasonable meaning of the word I think there is a large class of people in the world who would disagree with you there. –  jcolebrand Sep 6 '11 at 16:35
    
+1 for "The saying is not really meant to be taken literally. The point is that people have been selling sex from the beginning of time." –  Josh Sep 6 '11 at 16:35
    
Q edit bump. Revision? –  jcolebrand Sep 6 '11 at 17:38
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@jcolebrand: what does "Q edit bump. revision?" mean? –  Mitch Sep 6 '11 at 19:29
    
@Mitch it means I edited the question, so I'm bumping him via comment to see if he wants to make a revision to his answer. –  jcolebrand Sep 6 '11 at 20:36
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