Who Are You Calling an Amateur?

When you spend a fair amount of time reading documents that are 200 hundred years old, as I do, you inevitably come across unfamiliar words—or words that, even if familiar, are being used to mean something different from what you think they mean. And sometimes you start wondering about how and why those words have changed.

Let me offer an example. In 1807, a Baltimore magazine called The Observer discussed a highly anticipated concert, where (it said) “Mr. Nenninger, and a number of amateurs, will delight the scientific ear with a variety of both vocal and instrumental music.

I was immediately brought up short by this use of the word “amateur.” Yes, it denoted someone who wasn’t being paid for his or her efforts, just as we might use it today (although, in fact, lack of payment became a subject of dispute on the part of at least one of the performers). But there was none of the derogatory connotation that often attaches to the word nowadays, when the adjective “amateurish” is used to mean substandard. Instead, the word seemed to have a meaning closer to its Latin root “amo,” meaning “I love.” (For now, I won’t attempt to parse the word “scientific,” which is also used in the article in a way we wouldn’t expect.)

In fact, the word “amateur” originally just meant someone who did something because he loved to do it, not because he expected any profit from it. And in the old days—let’s say, the early 19th century—this was often considered a good thing. The Observer itself, like most magazines of the day, was written by “amateurs.” Its editors and correspondents received no pay, and there’s some indication that they would have bristled at the idea. They were “gentlemen” (or, in the rare case of The Observer’s editor, a lady), and their journalistic endeavors were undertaken out of a sense of civic duty—or perhaps out of a desire for amusement—not for what they might have dismissed as mercenary reasons.

To some extent this seems to have been a holdover from feudal, or at least aristocratic, times, when those at the top of society essentially lived off the profits from their land holdings and didn’t have to sully themselves by actually working for a living. The arts, in particular, weren’t seen as something one would get paid for, exactly. Ladies (and, to a lesser degree, gentlemen) learned how to play an instrument or sing or draw as part of their education. It was a way of passing the time and amusing others, not a way of making money.

Of course, there were “professional” artists as well, but in Europe they weren’t necessarily paid for their labors in any sort of quid pro quo arrangement. Often they had patrons who supported their work in a more disinterested fashion.

But in the United States in the early 19th century, there were—at least theoretically—no aristocrats. There were plenty of wealthy people, of course, but they didn’t necessarily see supporting artists as something it made sense to spend money on. The demise of aristocratic patronage was a phenomenon bemoaned by The Observer, but it was the wave of the future.

Until now, perhaps. Yes, wealthy Americans did eventually become patrons of the arts. And—on the other hand—there have always been starving artists. But with the arrival of the Internet, the number of people creating “art,” or at least engaging in pursuits for the love of them rather than for any financial reward, seems to have exploded.

This phenomenon is particularly evident in the realm of publishing. Technology has now made it far easier to self-publish—whether it be in the form of a blog, an e-book, or a traditional hardcover book. And there are online magazines where, just as at The Observer in 1807, no one gets paid for their efforts (my son, in fact, is a founder of one of them).

So, are those who write (or are creative in other ways) for the love of it to be considered “amateurs,” in the modern, derogatory sense of the word? Or in the flattering, elitist sense attached to it in 1807?

I think the answer here is “neither.” There are plenty of traditionally published authors who aren’t able to support themselves from their writing—even authors whose books are reviewed favorably in such places as the New York Times. Are they “amateurs”—in the derogatory sense—too?

At the same time, it’s undeniable that the self-publishing revolution has led to a lot of publications that only the author’s mother could embrace. (I should add that this is NOT true of my son’s magazine!)

So perhaps “amateur” is a word we should return to its origins, simply to denote someone who does something out of love. Whether others will love what they do is another question. But of course, that’s also true of those artists and writers who are lucky enough to be able to make a living from their creations.

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