« Retirement + 4 Days

Thinking About the Word “Amateur”

Steve Eddins
Posted on Thursday, April 25, 2024

I spent a good portion of my engineering and software development career coaching developers on how to name things in their software interfaces. Many of the engineers and developers tended to focus excessively on issues of form, such as capitalization and abbreviation conventions. In contrast, I focused my coaching on choosing the right words for the names, with the idea of basing names on short phrases that effectively, expressively, and concisely communicate the intended meaning to users of the software.

I did this kind of coaching for so many years that now I can’t stop thinking about the terminology used in other parts of my life. In connection to my own horn playing, I frequently think about the word “amateur.” I think of myself as an amateur horn player. Some of the people that I collaborate with in music-related projects, though, have been avoiding the word.

Like so many English words, “amateur” has several meanings. Merriam-Webster Dictionary and The American Heritage Dictionary give the same first definition: “One who engages in an art, science, study, or athletic activity as a pastime rather than as a profession.”

This is the definition I have in mind when I say that I am amateur horn player. But there’s a whiff of “damning with faint praise” in the definition. It arises from the way the definition is framed in contrast to a “profession,” a word that is strongly connected to the idea of standards or expectations for skill and competence. That’s why the dictionaries have additional definitions for amateur that refer to “lacking skill” or “lacking competence.”

From there, it’s just a short hop over to “unprofessional,” a strongly negative word that is right next door to “amateurish.”

These negative connotations of amateur, I believe, are why some of my musician friends have been avoiding the word. One substitution I have seen is “recreational” – “He is a recreational horn player.” Another is “enthusiast,” a word that I have used in my bio on my technical blog site.

I’m not satisfied, though, with either of these choices. They are vague and do not fully replace the idea of “one who engages in an art, science, study, or athletic activity as a pastime.” Also, in recent years I have most often heard the word “recreational” associated with marijuana use.

On balance, I have decided that I am comfortable with the word amateur. As I told my engineer colleagues, who generally tend to dislike words with ambiguous meaning, you can’t avoid English words that have ambiguous meaning; they are everywhere. Mostly, people can work out the intended meaning through context.

I’ll leave you with Wikipedia’s take on the word:

An amateur (from French ‘one who loves’) is generally considered a person who pursues an avocation independent from their source of income.