In a recent post, I explained the distinction between vocation and avocation among discussions of a group of commonly confused words. Here, I delve into a little more detail about the antonyms (well, usually) and explore their synonyms and the connotations of each.
Vocation originally had a religious cast to it; the word means “calling” (vocation and voice share the Latin root word vox, or “voice”) and described — and still describes — the inspiration some people receive to join the clergy or enter a religious community. Vocation also applies to the act of entering the priesthood or a religious order, though that use is rare.
Over the hundreds of years since the term was coined, it has spread out into the secular world, where it retains the sober connotation of something that is more than a job — a line of work that one has committed to performing. This gravity extends to senses referring to the body of people involved in a certain occupation or the occupation itself. (Compare the close synonym profession.)
However, the force of the word was also diluted by association with the now-outdated phrase “vocational education,” which connotes blue-collar trades that require skills acquired by hands-on training, as opposed to professions one enters after a rigorous course of academic study. But this migration of meaning goes both ways: Profession originally referred to the practice of law or medicine alone — one of two disciplines involving rigorous preparation and according the practitioners high social status.
This term, from the Latin word for “public declaration” (thus the sense in “He professed his love for her on bended knee”), like vocation, originated in a religious context, and referred to the taking of vows. Now, however, virtually every category of employment has been promoted to the rank of profession.
I’ve used several loose synonyms for vocation above (besides calling, a direct translation that needs no definition). One, “line of work,” is an informal reference to what type of employment one is engaged in. Another, trade, remains associated primarily with physical labor, as in “the building trades.” Occupation, from Latin, refers to any class of employment and is used in adjectival form in such ancillary phrases as “occupational therapy.”
Employment, meanwhile, stems from a French word meaning “to make use of,” from the Latin implicare, or “involve,” which, as you might have guessed, is also the precursor of implicate. Employment, far from the idealistic value of vocation, is often used in mundane, bureaucratic contexts, and its close synonym work, akin to the Greek word from which ergonomics is derived, is even more suggestive of toil.
A few other similar terms include career, from a French term meaning “street” or “passage,” with the implication of a chronological course or passage through a field of employment, and pursuit, a close synonym of vocation and calling, as well as metier (from a French word derived from the Latin term ministerium), which implies a specialty one is especially suited for by talent and temperament. Business (literally, “busy-ness”), by contrast, is associated with the pursuit of profit, though it can also generally mean a category of professional endeavor.
Curiously enough, vocation’s antonym, avocation, is also used as a synonym — appropriately enough, because one person’s avocation is another’s vocation — though it more often applies to a hobby. (That word is a clipping of hobbyhorse, meaning a toy horse or a horse costume and apparently derived from the diminutive of a nickname for the common name Robert.) Another synonym for avocation is recreation (literally, “restoration,” because of its connotation of a refreshing diversion). Pursuit also applies to avocation as well as to its antonym.
Though the two words are in a sense interchangeable, in a world far from the betrayed post-World War II promise of a shorter workweek, and one in which what we do for business and what we do for pleasure are seldom the same thing, to maintain a distinction between them seems like suitable employment for the two antonyms.