When I was in Norilsk, in the far north of Russia earlier this year, I was lucky enough to have a free day at the end of the teacher development course I’d been running there. We decided we were going to head off to Dudinka, a town on the mighty Yenisei river that serves as the main shipping port for the local metal factories. It was about a ninety-minute drive each way, and the weather was relatively mild for the time of year – only around zero. Once we left the city, we were basically out in the tundra – the flat, empty land where hardly anything grows, and which covers much of Siberia. There were no barriers on the sides of the road, so as the snow swept in from the tundra and across the road, visibility was massively reduced. It became hard to see more than a few metres in front and almost impossible to see where the road ended and the tundra began. I nervously asked if it was still safe to drive in such conditions and this led to the following conversation:
Don’t worry. Sasha is an excellent driver and he knows the roads very well. Can I say he’s high-end?
> Not really. I guess high-end is usually used to describe the kind of businesses that provide goods or services for really wealthy people, you know, people who want top-quality goods and don’t care how much they cost, so you get high-end stereo equipment and high-end department stores, all targeting high-end consumers. I’m glad we’ve got a good driver, though. WE need one in these conditions.
So how can I best describe him? If he’s really excellent and skillful?
> He’s a professional.
But this is not his job. He’s just doing this as a favour, because he knows the roads so well.
> It doesn’t matter. I’d still say he’s a professional!
If someone does something difficult in an excellent way, we often say they’re a professional, so if you offer me a coffee and then proceed to grind the beans, get the expensive (high-end!) coffee machine going and finally present me with the perfect double espresso, I might say “Wow! And there was me expecting a Nescafé! You’re a real professional, I see!” Professional is often shortened to pro, so for instance, I was round at a friend’s house the other day, watching him change his daughter’s nappy after she’d peed right through it. I commented on the fact that I really didn’t miss this side of parenting, to which he laughed and said “Hey. I’m used to it. I’m a hardened pro by now. Can do it in my sleep!“
In the same way, we also use amateur – /ˈæmətə(r)/ – in a jokey way to describe people who don’t do things very well. Imagine you go to get your hair cut somewhere and are shocked by what a terrible job they make of it, you may well tell friends “That’s the last time I ever go there. They’re a total bunch of amateurs!” We might describe ourselves as total amateurs if we’re not very good at something, and not very knowledgeable about it, but still enjoy it anyway, so if challenged to a game of table tennis, I may well reply “Yeah, go on. Why not? I’m a total amateur, but what the hell!“
If someone doing an important job is truly terrible at it and seems frequently confused and unsure of what they’re doing, they may well be called a bumbling amateur. Depressingly for us, it’s a description often levelled against our current Foreign Secretary, the man leading us into the crucial Brexit negotiations, Boris Johnson. What could possibly go wrong?
- When was the last time you dealt with someone you’d describe as a real pro?
- And have you ever had bed experiences with people you thought were a total bunch of amateurs?
- Have you ever had to drive when you couldn’t see more than a few metres in front of you?
- Do you know anyone who buys high-end goods or services?
- Have you ever had anyone make a terrible job of cutting your hair?