Let’s read Keller (2): the meanings behind ‘job’, ‘vocation’, ‘career’, ‘profession’

Let's read Keller

Tim Keller frames Every Good Endeavor in terms of the goal of recapturing the idea of vocation, entitling the introduction ‘The importance of recovering vocation’. He understands the notion in contradistinction to the “expressive individualism” that Robert Bellah identifies at the heart of American life in his classic Habits of the Heart (see here for a lecture by Bellah condensing some of the book’s main themes). Here is Keller’s summary of the term:

The Latin word vocare—to call—is at the root of our common word “vocation.” Today the word often means simply a job, but that was not the original sense. A job is a vocation only if someone else calls you to do it and you do it for them rather than for yourself. And so our work can be a calling only if it is reimagined as a mission of service to something beyond merely our own interests.

This summary made me curious to search out the etymology of other words we use to describe the work we do: ‘job’, ‘occupation’, ‘career’, ‘employment’, ‘profession’, ‘position’, ‘trade’, ‘livelihood’ and ‘work’ itself. What do these words say about the way we conceptualise work and the meaning with which we invest it? Armed with the trusty OED (surely one of my desert island books!), here are my findings. For each word below I begin with my summary of where I think the focus of the term lies, and then I paste selected fruits of my OED research (I found the etymology of ‘career’ particularly interesting).


JOB, n. Focus: the discrete task or ‘thing to be done’

1. a. A piece of work; esp. a small and discrete piece of work done as part of one’s regular occupation or profession.

2. a. An isolated or casual piece of work, undertaken for a one-off payment or on a hire basis. Hence also (depreciative): a task or transaction performed perfunctorily or opportunistically for profit.

4.  a. A task, a thing to be done; an operation, a procedure; a function to be fulfilled.

Etymology:  Origin uncertain. The fact that the word is earliest attested in the phrase job of work at Phrases 1 (see quot.1557-8 at sense 1a) suggests that ‘work’ may not originally have been part of the core meaning of the word. If the sense was originally ‘piece’, then the word may be a spec. use of JOB n.3 (A cartload; the amount that a horse and cart can bring at one time)


OCCUPATION, n. Focus: that which takes up our time.

II. 4.  b. A particular action or course of action in which a person is engaged, esp. habitually; a particular job or profession; a particular pursuit or activity.

c1390   CHAUCER Melibeus 2781   He that..casteth hym to no bisynesse ne occupacion.

?1577   G. BUCHANAN Let. in Vernac. Writings (1892) 58   As to my occupation at thys present tyme, I am besy with our story of Scotland.

a1616   SHAKESPEARE Othello (1622) III. iii. 362   Farewell, Othello’s Occupation’s gone.

Etymology:  < Anglo-Norman occupacion, occupacioun, occupaciun, ocupacioun and Anglo-Norman and Old French, Middle French occupation activity, employment (c1175)


EMPLOYMENT, n. Focus: takes the worker as the object, framing him/her as the passive recipient of work granted by an employer. The person who is ‘employed’ is ‘applied’ or ‘put to work’. It could almost stand as a secular equivalent of ‘vocation’.

2. An activity in which a person engages; a pursuit. Also as a mass noun: activity, occupation. Now rare (somewhat arch.).

4.  a. The action or fact of using or employing a person to perform a task, carry out a service, etc. In later use chiefly: the hiring of a person to undertake paid work, esp. in return for wages or a salary under an employment contract. Also: an instance of this.

b. The state or condition of being so employed; the state of working for an employer, esp. in return for wages. Chiefly in in (also into, out of) employment.

Etymology:  < Anglo-Norman imploier, Anglo-Norman and Middle French emploier, Middle Frenchemployer (French employer ) to use or apply (for a purpose), to put to work (c1100 in Old French), to engage (someone) in an occupation (12th cent.), to occupy (time) with an activity (c1220), to allocate, assign (14th cent.), to bestow (a gift, etc.)


CAREER, n. Focus: The focus here is on intensity, competitiveness and advancement. A term originally applied to animals.

Etymology:  < French carrière racecourse; also career, in various senses; = Italian carriera, Provençal carriera, Spanish carrera road, carrer < late Latin carrāria (via) carriage-road, road, <carrus wagon.

1. a. The ground on which a race is run, a racecourse; (also) the space within the barrier at a tournament.

2. a. Of a horse: A short gallop at full speed (often in phr. to pass a career ). Also a charge, encounter (at a tournament or in battle).Obs.

3. a. By extension: A running, course (usually implying swift motion); formerly [like French carrière] applied spec. to the course of the sun or a star through the heavens. Also abstr. Full speed, impetus: chiefly in phrases like in full career, †to take, give (oneself or some thing) career , etc., which were originally terms of horsemanship (see 2).

5.  b. In modern language (after French carrière) freq. used for: A course of professional life or employment, which affords opportunity for progress or advancement in the world. Freq. attrib. (orig. U.S.), esp.  (a) designating one who works permanently in the diplomatic service or other profession, opp. one who enters it at a high level from elsewhere;  (b) career girl, career woman, etc., one who works permanently in a profession, opp. one who ceases full-time work on marrying. Also,   careers master n. a schoolteacher who advises and helps pupils in choosing careers.,  career mistress n. = careers master n.

1927   Lit. Digest 25 June 14/2   The foundation of any sound Foreign Service must consist of ‘career men’ who have become expert.

1931   F. J. STIMSON My United States xviii. 190   The career professors look somewhat askance at one who comes in from the outside world—just as career secretaries in diplomacy do upon a chief who has not gone through all the grades.


PROFESSION, n. Focus: work in which some body of knowledge or field is mastered and then declared or expressed.

Etymology:  < Anglo-Norman professioun, Anglo-Norman and Old French, Middle French profession (French profession ) declaration of faith (1155 as professiun ), vows taken when entering a religious order (c1174), condition, occupation (1362 as prophecie ; 1404 as prophecion ; a1417 asprofession ; 1495 as profection ), action of teaching publicly, professorship (1596) and its etymon classical Latin professiōn-, professiō open declaration, avowal, public declaration of one’s person and property, public register of people and property, vocation or occupation that one publicly avows

1.  b. Any solemn declaration, promise, or vow.

4. a. The declaration of belief in and obedience to religion, or of acceptance of and conformity to the faith and principles of any religious community; (hence) the faith or religion which a person professes.

II. Senses relating to professional occupation. 7.  a. An occupation in which a professed knowledge of some subject, field, or science is applied; a vocation or career, especially one that involves prolonged training and a formal qualification. Also occas. as mass noun: occupations of this kind. In early use applied spec. to the professions of law, the Church, and medicine, and sometimes extended also to the military profession.

1605   BACON Of Aduancem. Learning II. sig. Aa3,   Amongst so many great Foundations of Colledges in Europe, I finde strange that they are all dedicated to Professions, and none left free to Artes and Sciences at large.

1711   J. ADDISON Spectator No. 21. ¶1   The three great Professions of Divinity, Law, and Physick.

4. b. More widely: any occupation by which a person regularly earns a living.N.E.D. (1908) notes: ‘Now usually applied to an occupation considered to be socially superior to a trade or handicraft; but formerly, and still in vulgar (or humorous) use, including these.’


POSITION, n. Focus: place within a predetermined constellation; connotation of comparison to others.

Etymology:  < Anglo-Norman posicion, posicioun and Middle French posicion, position, Frenchposition situation, site (late 13th cent. in Old French), thesis, assertion, statement (late 13th cent., earliest in a legal context; now spec. ‘tenet, point of doctrine’ (late 14th cent. or earlier in this sense; rare before 1690)), act of laying down (early 14th cent. or earlier in Anglo-Norman in a legal context)

3. d. The particular location allocated to an employee, esp. the place occupied by each cashier along a service counter.

1937   Times 25 Oct. 21/1   Our operators on the great 24-position switchboard deal with an average of 45,000 calls per day.

8.  a. fig. A relation in which a person stands with respect to another or others; a person’s circumstances, condition, or situation, esp. as affecting his or her influence, role, or power to act; spec. (freq. insocial position) status, rank, standing.

8. b. In a contest or competitive event: the place or standing of a contestant or competitor in relation to the others. In a specified category, field, etc.: the status or rank of any of those included in relation to the others.

c. A post as an employee; a paid office, a job.

1846   DICKENS Dombey & Son (1848) i. 4   Mr. Pilkins here, who from his position of medical adviser in this family—no one better qualified to fill that position, I am sure.


TRADE, n. Focus: habitual work. The track, course or way of work taken by an individual.

Etymology:  < Middle Low German trade (trâ ) feminine, track (Schiller & Lubben), Low German trade (traan < traden ) track (Bremisch. Wbch.); also West Flemish tra ( < trade ) walk, march, course (De Bo), < Old Saxon trada strong feminine, footstep, track = Old High German trata , Middle High German trate , trat strong feminine, footstep, trace, track, way, passage, < West Germanic ablaut-series tred- , trad- to TREAD v. Apparently introduced into English in 14th cent. from Hanseatic Middle Low German, perhaps originally in nautical language for the ‘course or track’ of a ship; afterwards used in other senses of Middle English trede TREAD n.

1. a. A course, way, path; (with possessive or of) the course trodden by a person, followed by a ship, etc.; = TREAD n. 3 common trade, a public thoroughfare. Obs.

5.  a. The practice of some occupation, business, or profession habitually carried on, esp. when practised as a means of livelihood or gain; a calling; formerly used very widely, including professions; now usually applied to a mercantile occupation and to a skilled handicraft, as distinct from a profession (PROFESSION n. 7a), and spec. restricted to a skilled handicraft, as distinguished from a professional or mercantile occupation on the one hand, and from unskilled labour on the other.in trade, following a mercantile occupation, spec. that of a shop-keeper. In earliest use not clearly distinguishable from 3; the sense is developed by contextual additions, as trade (i.e. practice) of husbandry , trade of merchandise, trade of fishing, etc.

1601   Act 43 Eliz. c. 2 §1   For settinge to worke all such persons..[who] use no ordinarie or dailie trade of lief to get their livinge by.

a1616   SHAKESPEARE Julius Caesar (1623) I. i. 12   Mur. But what Trade art thou? Answer me directly… Fla. Thou art a Cobler, art thou?


LIVELIHOOD, n. Focus: Means to the end of living.

Etymology:  < LIFE n. + Old English lād course, journey, way, maintenance, support (see LOAD n., LODEn.). Compare Old High German lībleita food, provisions, means of living. The β. forms show remodelling of the ending by association with nouns in -HOOD suffix, and probably also subsequent remodelling by association with LIVELY adj

1. The course of a person’s life, lifetime; kind or manner of life; conduct. Obs.

2. a. A (person’s) means of living. Also as a mass noun: means of living; maintenance, sustenance. Esp. in to earn (also gain, get, make,or seek) a livelihood .

c1300   St. Mary of Egypt (Laud) l. 18 in C. Horstmann Early S.-Eng. Legendary (1887) 261 (MED),   With spinningue and with seuwingue, hire liflode heo wan.

1711   J. ADDISON Spectator No. 94. ¶8   He set himself to think on proper Methods for getting a Livelihood in this strange Country.

b. (A person’s) physical sustenance; an instance of this. Also: food, provisions.

a1382   Bible (Wycliffite, E.V.) (Bodl. 959) (1961) Deut. ii. 28   Liflodys by prise sul to vs þat we etyn.


WORK, n. Focus: The most general of all the terms considered here. Implies effort, and can be used of human or nonhuman actors.

Etymology:  Old English weorc = Old Frisian, Old Saxon, (Middle) Low German, (Middle) Dutch werk, Old High German werah , werc (Middle High German werch , werc , German werk ), Old Norse verk(Swedish, Danish verk ) < Old Germanic *werkom (see WORK v.); cognate are Greek ἔργον , Armeniangorc , Avestan varəza- activity.

I. 1.  a. Something that is or was done; what a person does or did; an act, deed, proceeding, business; in pl. actions, doings (often collectively =3). arch. or literary in gen. sense.

1.  c. Qualified by phr. with of expressing the moral quality of the action, as a work or works of charity, of darkness, of mercy , etc.

2.  a. Something to be done, or something to do; what a person (or thing) has or had to do; occupation, employment, business, task, function.

1598   SHAKESPEARE Henry IV, Pt. 1 II. iv. 105   Fie vpon this quiet life, I want worke.

1604   SHAKESPEARE Hamlet V. ii. 274   The point inuenom’d to, then venome to thy worke.

4. a. Action involving effort or exertion directed to a definite end, esp. as a means of gaining one’s livelihood; labour, toil; (one’s) regular occupation or employment.

8. Physics and Mech. The operation of a force in producing movement or other physical change, esp. as a definitely measurable quantity: see quots.

1832   W. WHEWELL First Princ. Mech. iv. 52   The work done does not depend on the pressure alone.

1832   W. WHEWELL First Princ. Mech. iv. 53   The work done by a machine may be represented as certain pressures exerted through certain spaces.


My aim in offering these etymological reflections is not to draw any trite conclusions about which of these terms Christians should and should not use. I see the aim of this post more as a consciousness-raising exercise, both for myself and for readers of this blog: there are many different ways of considering our work (in terms of our position in a hierarchy, the effort involved, the body of knowledge we deploy, the fact of being given work by someone else, work as a means to the end of living…) and no doubt each term is appropriate in particular contexts. Nevertheless, I am struck by how all the terms apart from ‘vocation’ situate work on a predominantly horizontal level, focusing on our relation to other people and to the product of our labour, but not to God. For this reason, I am minded to echo Keller’s call to recover the concept of ‘vocation’ today. It reminds us of the origin, the goal, the standard and the authority of our work.


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