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Languages: The many meanings of amateur

In a few previous posts, I used the word amateur. I used this word on purpose, because it has two meanings in English:


  • a person who engages in a pursuit, esp. a sport, on an unpaid basis.
  • a person considered contemptibly inept at a particular activity.

I find this very interesting, because the second meaning probably colors the way the work of an amateur (in the first sense) is seen by English natives: they probably can’t completely remain free from the second interpretation. This is probably true despite the fact that, as Wikipedia notes, non-professional such as Linus Torvalds have often made unquestionably significant contributions.

But it is also interesting to observe how your background and your origin colors your perception. For me, the word, even in English, has a whiff of a different interpretation, because in French, the first meaning of amateur is “someone who has a taste for something”. For instance, that would be the meaning in un amateur de peinture. In French, amateur has a generally positive tone to it. “Un amateur de bon vin et de jolies femmes” is someone who knows how to live the good life. The English meaning of “inept” is barely perceptible in the French word.

Behind these different interpretations of amateur, there is an interesting question. What increases the chances of getting the best quality: passion or money? Do you get the highest quality from someone who loves his job, or from someone who is well paid to do it?

Having lived abroad gives you a stronger feeling for this kind of cultural subtleties. That’s part of this grenouille bouillie stuff. Anyway, just to make things clear, when I describe myself as an amateur in physics, I really mean it as a non professional who has a taste for physics and is most likely often quite inept at it…

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