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Q: Origin of the word 'professional' ( Answered 5 out of 5 stars,   0 Comments )
Subject: Origin of the word 'professional'
Category: Arts and Entertainment > Books and Literature
Asked by: codenotes-ga
List Price: $50.00
Posted: 03 Aug 2004 19:29 PDT
Expires: 02 Sep 2004 19:29 PDT
Question ID: 383208
I need to understand the origins of the word 'professional'.  I have
found on the web that it comes from middle English, and that it has
religious connotations such as 'to take vows', but I need to
understand a little more.  Specifically:

1) was its middle English root used strictly in a religious context,
or did mean what it means today in that there were professionals in
different fields?
2) who/what language tacked on the 'al' at the end to create the word
'professional' which we have today
3) when this word appears in earliest texts such as Chaucer or early
French texts, what was the connation?
4) what other words are related to or descended from it
5) are there similar/related words used in other modern languages that
mean the same thing or have slightly different meanings in those
6) what other interesting meanings or historical curiosities (if any)
surround the word?
Subject: Re: Origin of the word 'professional'
Answered By: smudgy-ga on 03 Aug 2004 21:20 PDT
Rated:5 out of 5 stars
Hi codenotes,

I hope you find the following answer satisfactory. If for any reason
you are not satisfied, please request a clarification before rating
and I will do my best to improve my answer.

It seems that the word "professional" is Latin to the core, having
entered English in the Middle English period by way of French. I will
address your points one by one.

1: According to the Oxford English Dictionary, considered -the-
authorotative dictionary of the English language, the first recorded
occurrence of "professional" was circa 1420, and it did indeed refer
to "pertaining or making entrance into a religious order."
	However, this usage of the word "professional" itself seems to have
been rare; the next recorded occurrence of the word is in 1747 where
it takes on a more modern meaning, "pertaining to, proper to, or
connected with one's profession or calling." If we look at the entry
for the root word "profess", the OED notes that "before 1500" the word
was used "only in a religious sense," having the meaning "To have made
one's profession in religion." Secular usage of the verb "profess"
begins in about 1510, where it begins to take on the meaning "to make
one's profession" in general.
	The noun "professional" takes on its current meaning of "one who
makes a profession or business of any occupation" in the early 1800s
(OED's first reference for that meaning is in 1811).

2: For this part of your question we'll break down the word
"professional" into each of its constituent parts. The basic pieces we
have are "pro"-"fes"-"ion"-"al". All four of these pieces ultimately
come from Latin, introduced into Middle English by way of the French.
	We'll start with the root "profess". This comes from the Latin word
"profiteor", "to acknowledge, confirm, promise, confess." The past
participle of this word is "professus," which is how the word form
comes to us in English. The Latin word itself is composed of two
parts, "pro", generally meaning "towards", and "fiteor", which seems
to be a form of the verb "fateor", meaning "to confess, admit, allow,
reveal, make known". So to "profess" means, essentially, "to admit
something", with the "pro-" part emphasizing the revealing or outgoing
nature of the act, i.e., "to admit openly".

	The "-ion" portion of the word is an ending for Latin verbs that
turns a verb into a noun in a specific way; it behaves much as the
ending does in English: we can turn the verb "to act" into a noun
"action" by adding the "-ion" ending.
	Lastly we have the "-al" ending, which comes from another Latin
ending "-alem", which changes a noun into an adjective in the sense,
"of or pertaining to". For example, in English, we have "musical"
meaning "of or pertaining to music", or to give a somewhat more
indirect example, "conditional", which has come to mean "dependent on
a particular condition" (though the "of or pertaining to" sense is
still clearly present).
	All four of these constituent parts existed largely intact in
medieval French, and were absorbed into English without much

3: Here are some examples of early uses of the words "profess",
"profession", and "professional" from the Oxford English Dictionary.
The religious connotation is clear in the earliest examples:

c. 1300: "Ac mi professioun ich habbe to Jesu Crist ido."

c. 1315: "Relessed Schel hym naught be religioun, Though he be naught professed."

c. 1386, from Chaucer's Shipman's Tale: "Nay quod this Monk by god and
by seint Martyn..This swere I yow on my profession."

c. 1420: "Hit was hurre professhennalle rynge," where in this context
a "professional ring" or "profession ring" is a symbol of enrollment
in a religious instititution.

The connotation in all these examples seems to indicate that a
profession is a solemn oath to a religious organization, along the
lines of what we might use the word "vow" for nowadays.

4: The verbs "confiteor" and "profiteor" (which mean roughly, "to
confess" and "to confess openly", respectively) seem to have been
taken into our language intact as "to confess" and "to profess". To
that end these words, and their associated permutations (professor,
professly, confession, 'fess up) seem to be the only English words
related to those Latin roots.
	Other words that seem like they might be related to the Latin roots
or other parts of speech (fessive, comfit, profit) all come from
different root words in Latin that are unrelated to the "fateor" root.

5: Since "professional" is essentially borrowed wholesale from Latin,
very similar words are likely to crop up in modern romance languages
with very similar meanings to the English meaning. For example:

Spanish: The word "profesional" translates to "professional" in English.
French: The word "professionnel" translates to "professional" in English.
Italian: The word "professionista" translates to "professional" in English.
Portugese: The word "profissional" translates to "professional" in English.

6: It seems that the most interesting facet of the word "professional"
and its constituent parts such as "profess" is that they originally
referred to the religious oaths that you asked about. One interesting
fact that I did learn in my search was that originally the verb "to
profess" was only used in the passive voice, that is, "to be
professed". So you would not have originally said "I profess myself to
the church," but rather "I am professed to the church."

I hope you find that this answer satisfies your needs. If you have any
questions or need any part of it clarified, or if you need more detail
about some aspect of the answer, please request a clarification and I
will do my best to help you.

Good luck,

References: Information from parts 1, 2, 3, and 6 come from the Oxford
English Dictionary. Quoted definitions in those parts are quoted
directly from the OED. Latin verbs from part 4 come from the online
Latin dictionaries listed below. Information from part 5 comes from
Babelfish (see below).

Oxford English Dictionary,
Note that is a subscription-only service. However, please
also note that many public libraries have either a paper version or
access to the online version of the dictionary.
Searches conducted: "professional", "profession", "profess", "pro-", "-al", "-ion"

Google search:
"Latin dictionary"

Latin Dictionaries used:

Other resources used:

Request for Answer Clarification by codenotes-ga on 03 Aug 2004 21:49 PDT

It seems my first experience using google answers proves the concept
works;  there is a great deal of information in your answer that will
be very useful to me.

In terms of clarification, maybe just two additional questions and I
think we?ve got it.

1.	The slang ??fess up?.  Is that an old or modern term?  It sounds
modern, but it would be very interesting if it originated in an
earlier period.
2.	In your answer to my third question, you give 4 examples of 14th
century text including the word ?profession?.  Do you happen to know
the literal translations and/or quick context of these lines?

Thanks for your help here?

Clarification of Answer by smudgy-ga on 03 Aug 2004 22:16 PDT
Hi codenotes,

According to the OED, "'fess" first appeared by itself as a slangy
contraction of "confess" no later than 1840: "It would be a sad thing
to die here all alone in the woods with a lie in your mouth; so 'fess
clean." The earliest reference given for "'fess up" is in 1930: "The
joke is on him and he may as well 'Fess up' to it." The quotes seem to
indicate that the writer is referencing the vernacular of the day, so
it is likely that "'fess up" was used for quite some time (possibly
decades; written examples of slang are often many years behind the
date of the coining of the slang) before it was recorded in text.

My Middle English is a bit rusty, but I will do my best with the
quotes I provided you.

"Ac mi professioun ich habbe to Jesu Crist ido."
I believe this is something like, "In my profession I have sworn to Jesus Christ". 

"Relessed Schel hym naught be religioun, Though he be naught professed."
"He shall not be freed from [the burdens of] religion, even though he
is not professed [to it]."

"Nay quod this Monk by god and by seint Martyn..This swere I yow on my profession."
"Now this monk did say by God and by St. Martin, This I swear to you
on my profession [i.e., on my religious oaths]."

"Hit was hurre professhennalle rynge"
"It was his (or her) professional ring."

I hope that answers your questions! If not, feel free to request
further clarification. Thanks a lot for posting an interesting and fun
question to research.

Good luck,

Clarification of Answer by smudgy-ga on 03 Aug 2004 22:36 PDT
Thanks for the five-star rating and the glowing review, codenotes!

Incidentally, when you do post further questions, you can request a
specific researcher simply by putting "For johndoe-ga:" in the
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A request for a specific researcher does not in any "mechanical" way
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Thanks again,
codenotes-ga rated this answer:5 out of 5 stars
First question I've posted to google research, now I am hooked.
Thorough and deep answer, clearly explained. I hope to get Smudgy
again with future questions.

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