I very often hear people call themselves professional at something they haven’t been doing long.

On the rare occasions that I ask them how they feel able to qualify themselves as professional, the general answer is “because I am paid to do it”.

Given that the term professional is so similar to professor — somebody who knows their topic inside out — is it really OK to apply the term professional so trivially?

Can anybody give me an explanation of where the term professional came from and how it should be used today?

  • 1
    Can you please include your research for the etymology of "professional"? – Kristina Lopez Jun 25 '14 at 13:43
  • 2
    "Professors" by definition know their subject inside out? Uh-oh. Way to feed my impostor complex! – Brian Donovan Jun 25 '14 at 22:31

Most words have multiple meanings depending on context; professional is no different.

(AHD) professional, adj.
1. a. Of, relating to, engaged in, or suitable for a profession: lawyers, doctors, and other professional people. b. Conforming to the standards of a profession: professional behavior.
2. Engaging in a given activity as a source of livelihood or as a career: a professional writer.
3. Performed by persons receiving pay: professional football.
4. Having or showing great skill; expert: a professional repair job.

Profession, according to Etymonline.com, originated in one's declaration to join a Catholic religious institute:

c.1200, "vows taken upon entering a religious order," from Old French profession (12c.), from Latin professionem (nominative professio) "public declaration," from past participle stem of profiteri "declare openly" (see profess). Meaning "any solemn declaration" is from mid-14c. Meaning "occupation one professes to be skilled in" is from early 15c.; meaning "body of persons engaged in some occupation" is from 1610; as a euphemism for "prostitution" (compare oldest profession) it is recorded from 1888.

For the adjective form professional,

early 15c., of religious orders; 1747 of careers (especially of the skilled or learned trades from c.1793); see profession.

Professor, referring to a university instructor of a certain rank, is related, but is borrowed via Old French directly from Latin:

person who professes to be an expert in some art or science; teacher of highest rank, the agent noun from profiteri, "lay claim to, declare openly" (see profess). As a title prefixed to a name, it dates from 1706.

So it seems the sense of professional as one in an occupation requiring special training, skills, or education is the original one, and it is only loosely related to professor.

And as with most words, context is important in how you would use professional.

In sports parlance, for example, a professional is one who is paid to play a sport as opposed to an amateur who trains as a pastime. This notion is independent of any skill level or training, as evidenced by the controversy over the treatment of student-athletes in the NCAA, and by the New York Mets. Between the two is the world of semi-professional sports, where competitors are paid, but do not train and play as a full-time profession, and must take at least part-time employment to meet their expenses.

In the military, in contrast, a professional army is comprised of enlistees who make the military their full-time career, as opposed to private citizens who volunteer or are conscripted (a citizen army).

In economics, political science, and other social sciences, professional refers to a class of workers with advanced education and specialized training: medicine, law, engineering, academia, and so on. By this definition, an administrative assistant would not be a professional even though he is paid to do the job, and may wear a tie and work in an office; the job requires no specialized degree or advanced training.

In still broader contexts, professional may be synonymous with white-collar worker, including not just doctors and lawyers but people like consultants, analysts, or really anyone who works at a desk. When economic development boards and fashionable apartment buildings promote their friendliness to single "young professionals" it is in this sense of the word.

  • So, uh... What exactly do the Mets have to do with this? (Other than the joke about NYC being home to six professional sports teams... And the Mets, that is.) – LessPop_MoreFizz Jul 6 '14 at 5:50

From google:


  • of, relating to, or connected with a profession.
  • (of a person) engaged in a specified activity as one's main paid occupation rather than as a pastime.
  • a person engaged or qualified in a profession.

From wikipedia: The etymology and historical meaning of the term professional seems to indicate an individual whose philosophy and habits have been conditioned by a professor.


According to google, the word originates with the concept of professing, meaning "to declare publicly" --with the relationship being that you "profess" to be skilled in a craft.

According to modern dictionaries, however, your friends are correct --when you are paid to do something --typically, but not exclusively as your main career (profession)--, you are a professional.

The adjective "professional" is often also used to mean either having achieved a high level of skill consistent with people being willing to pay you to practice your craft, or to behaving and comporting oneself in a way that indicates you respect the fact that you are being paid for what you do, but both these meanings are secondary in current usage.

(As far as the word professor my own guess is that it has the same root as professional but that the two words diverged in meaning early in their development)


Language is fluid and words change meaning. During the transition period three things are possible: 1. the original meaning survives intact, 2. the new meaning prevails driving out the original, and 3. both meanings coexist depending on the speaker's intent and the context. On one hand a profession is any type of work that needs special training or a particular skill, often one that is respected because it involves a high level of education, e.g. medical doctor, dentist. Or a professional is, as opposed to an amateur, one who get paid for his occupation, e.g. professional athlete, or cab driver. Or one who needs a professional license, see N.Y. State list of professional licenses. Bottom line: you pays yer money and ya takes yer choice.


Is a teacher a "professional"? Probably because it requires a license.

When some one wants to stop conflict and they say, "we're all professionals here", it refers to the conduct part of the definition. But it's really an empty attempt to not solve a problem. The word professional does not describe how behavior is conducted. It's non descriptive and implies that all people who get paid should act a certain way. But then that way is not described, except respect. Again, that word is open to discussion, as well.

I heard the word professional so many times in a room of people, that it totally lost meaning for me.

If some one gets paid to go to school, are they a professional student? Does this mean they have the same conduct as a plumber or a teacher or the President?

  • @Rathony Yes, sorry, I hadn't quite caught on to the fact that these questions were rhetorical. Nevertheless, the OP might want to explain this a bit more, particularly since there is already a good answer to this question. – BladorthinTheGrey Nov 5 '16 at 14:55
  • @BladorthinTheGrey Don't worry. It happens. I agree with your points, but I would not downvote or vote to delete this answer as it tries to answer the question. – user140086 Nov 5 '16 at 15:00

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