The World's Oldest Professions (A Dictionary)
The dictionary of "Old Pros" revives 1,647 old professions, dating from pre-history to the 20th century, bringing them to life with funny, biting, heart-breaking observations about work. Including essays on ancient economic mayhem, this definitive reference work is a word lover’s feast. History buffs will find its thousand views on the trouble with toil enthralling. More
What jobs did people have before the 20th century? "A word lover's feast, "The World's Oldest Professions" answers that question is sumptuous detail. The word “profession” comes from the verb “to profess,” from the idea that for a person to go into business, to attract customers or clients, he or she needs to make a public declaration, “to profess” to having a specific skill for sale.The phrase “the world’s oldest profession” is of course a euphemism for prostitution. Some say the second oldest profession is espionage (or the law), though others contend that working as a wife or husband is a close second. When civilizations have reached peaks of wealth and sophistication, work has become quite specialized. Those who drew the richest salaries—Pharaohs, Incas, Emperors—lived, well, “like kings.” And others—clients, clapperdudgeons, rufflers, trugs—were “poor beggars,” indeed. In between, legions have toiled and perished, practicing and perfecting a thousand trades. What they have in common is that by earning coin of the realm, by definition, they were all professionals. And as some cynic once said, “All work is prostitution.” The historian, Thomas Carlyle, on the other hand, said: “All work, even cotton-spinning, is noble—work alone is noble.” A great many other perspectives on work are contained in the pages of this dictionary, which is brimming with historical insights and ironic asides on men and women’s desperate, ingenious, pell-mell pursuit of filthy lucre. Over time, money-raking pursuits become entrenched, emulated, and named. Even the “snudge,” a thief whose calling is to hide under beds, has a name of his own. This dictionary is a tribute to all the names and the named. The 1,647 entries are a window on the past, seen from the vantage point of economists, poets, historians, lexicographers, tragic-comedians, and critics. Also included are twelve essays by the author on little-known economic history, finance, and professions. In compiling this dictionary, the author read the Oxford English Dictionary—a work that runs to a dozen volumes and 750,000 words—from A to Z. Other dictionaries consulted include Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary, The American Heritage Dictionary, A Dictionary of Americanisms, Hobson-Jobson, and on the lighter side, The Devil’s Dictionary and Flaubert’s Dictionary of Platitudes. Quotations were chosen for specificity, humor, and vividness, to let the long-vanished live again, in their misery and glory. The people who did the back-breaking work are given their due; the bean counters, engrossers, and tycoons are likewise seen for what they were, and for what they are.