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The ways we occupy ourselves nowadays

By Ruth Walker / January 28, 2005



As I was flipping through the Sunday papers the other day - through the supermarket fliers and other parts that make me feel efficient and decisive because I zip through them in no time - my eye fell on an ad in The Boston Globe for "hawkers."

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To be more specific: The Globe was advertising for "Independent Contractor Newspaper Hawkers ... to sell Daily and Sunday editions" of the paper.

Hawkers? Now there's a job title right out of Dickens - if not Samuel Johnson or even Shakespeare. I half expected to see an

ad for "fishwives" or maybe "bootblacks" the next column over. But "hawkers" is an equal- opportunity, common-gender noun. Both sexes may apply. And "Independent Contractor" makes for a modern touch. Hmm.... Did Horatio Alger's intrepid newsboys ever think of themselves as independent contractors?

Whatever - "hawkers" got the wheels turning about how job titles reflect both the constants and the changes of the world of work. Teachers, nurses, accountants, engineers, managers were in demand. But so was a "Chief Officer for Diversity and Equity" for a major university. A local locksmith company was seeking a "locksmith/access control salesperson." Think of all the people who come and go at their workplaces to the sound of a beeping access card, rather than a nod from the doorman or receptionist or the guy in the guardhouse. All those "access systems" have to be sold. These are not your father's classifieds.

My favorite was an ad from a local eatery advertising for a "doughnut finisher." Actually, a little research revealed that this is a significant player in the making of doughnuts, but a lot of us will tend to think of a doughnut finisher as the one who, when anyone brings a dozen into the office, can be counted on to eat the last one.

An ad from a landscape design firm introduced me to the concept of "hardscape," a term used to refer to rocks, bricks, flagstones, etc., as distinct from "softscape," or actual plants.

I have to admire "ultrasonographer," one who operates an ultrasound machine, as an example of good coinage. Modeled on "photographer" and similar terms, it combines Latin and Greek elements and ends with the Anglo-Saxon "er" that indicates a "doer."

Another occupation with a nifty-sounding Greek-derived name that I can't resist mentioning is "dendrochronology." Not that the want ads are full of openings in the field. To oversimplify, dendrochronologists, numbering about 1,000 worldwide, count tree rings, and this helps them date pieces of wood to specific years.

When a painting that might be the only extant portrait made of William Shakespeare in his lifetime surfaced in Ontario a few years back, dendrochronologist Peter Klein found that the painting was on oak from a Baltic forest dating from 1597. His finding helped make the (still unproven) case for the portrait's authenticity.

If the help-wanted ads tell us something about the world of work today, individual surnames often reflect the world of work of a few centuries ago. Miller, Baker, Carpenter, Taylor, and Weaver live on both as surnames and as occupations, but where is Mr. Programmer, or Ms. Consultant, or perhaps the Litigator family?

If modern occupations were to take hold as surnames, can you imagine a wedding invitation of the year, say, 2205: "Mr. Jonathan SystemsAnalyst and Ms. Hillary EventsManager request the honour of your presence at the wedding of their daughter..."?

This appears with links at: http:// weblogs.csmonitor.com/verbal_energy

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