For love or money

Last week, when I posted to disparage Microsoft PowerPoint, I used the word ‘amateur’, as in “PowerPoint makes you look like a total amateur.” I already regret that word choice; I did not mean to denigrate amateurs!

The word, of course, comes from the Latin amator (lover), so originally it meant someone who pursues something for the love of it, rather than for monetary compensation. My dictionary (New Oxford American, 2e) lists two definitions:

  1. a person who engages in a pursuit on an unpaid basis
  2. a person considered contemptibly inept at a particular activity
These meanings are at odds with one another, and I hate that. I have to imagine that the second meaning was promoted by professionals trying to discredit the work of those that were not members of the trade guild.

Today, in many fields, one can find extremely talented amateurs and grossly incompetent professionals. Indeed, I am an amateur photographer and pianist, so I have an interest in protecting the positive definition of the word. People do seek to publish my photographs: just yesterday an English professor from Utah asked to use one of my (fairly abstract) photos for the cover of a book he is editing. (I'll post something about it in the future.) I usually agree to these things, with little or no pay, because I just don't take pictures for money. I'm more interested in improving my skills and having my work appreciated and used.

Amateurs and professionals sometimes take on different roles. I'd never agree to be the sole photographer at someone's wedding. That's too much pressure; leave that stuff to a professional!

Something similar happens in software development; amateurs (in the first sense) are the basis of the free software movement and the hacker culture. In this case, I'd personally be more likely to hire someone who programs on her own time just because she loves it, rather than someone who pursued a pile of certifications and acronyms (CCNA, MCSE, etc.) Like the trade guilds, certification programs (particularly expensive ones) aim to delegitimize amateurs.

Some of my thinking on this topic is probably thanks to Paul Graham. In his essay What Business Can Learn from Open Source, he writes:

There's a name for people who work for the love of it: amateurs. The word now has such bad connotations that we forget its etymology, though it's staring us in the face. "Amateur" was originally rather a complimentary word. But the thing to be in the twentieth century was professional, which amateurs, by definition, are not. That's why the business world was so surprised by one lesson from open source: that people working for love often surpass those working for money.
Anyway, I'm not going to edit the PowerPoint post to redact the word ‘amateur’. Sometimes I think we have to accept the fact that words have different, even conflicting, meanings. I feel this way when hackers (enthusiastic and skillful computer programmers or users) fume about mentions of hackers (people who use computers to gain unauthorized access to data) in the media. [Definitions from New Oxford American 2e, again.]

Get over it, it means both things now. Rely on the context. (Although I guess I do get upset when people don't know there is a ‘good’ definition…)

©20022015 Christopher League