Q&A: Tricks of the trade

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Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we’re learning the tricks of the trade…

Q: I’m furious.

A: Oh really? Why? What happened?

Q: Hey, I ask the questions around here.

A: Um, right. So, er, tell us about your day.

Q: Well, I just found out that my lawyer has been engaging in horse trading on my behalf! I don’t even have a patio – where am I going to put a horse?

A: Calm down. “Horse trading” is an idiomatic phrase simply meaning “shrewd negotiations”.

Q: Oh, so it doesn’t have anything to do with horses?

A: It did once – obviously. That’s how it got its name. But these days it tends to cover general business dealings.

Q: Phew, that’s a relief. I had started clearing some space in the spare room, but it was looking a bit sketchy. My landlord said no dogs, but technically my lease hadn’t discussed horses.

A: Yes, right.

Q: It’s good to know these tricks of the trade. I suppose I should stop trading insults with my lawyer then.

A: It appears we’ve stumbled upon this week’s theme.

Q: Oh, have we? Care to let me in on the trade secret?

A: It appears to be terms relating to “trade”.

Q: So answer me this then. Can anyone be a “Jack of all trades” or only people named Jack?

A: Only people named Jack are permitted to be good at more than one trade.

Q: Really?

A: No.

Q: Oh.

A: “Jack of all trades” simply means you’re good at a bunch of things – often in related industries. Curiously the meaning is turned on its head when we say “Jack of all trades, master of none”. Now the connotation is that you only know a little about a bunch of things, and are not an expert in any one thing.

Q: Okay, so what about “fair trade”? My Uncle Tom is into that.

A: Good for him. You can have “fair trade” coffee, chocolate and handmade items, to name just a few. It’s where the original growers or makers share more equally in the profits.

Q: Oh okay, slight misunderstanding. My Uncle Tom is in a different fair trade business. He buys and sells ferris wheels and teacup rides and those clowns with the mouths that you try to throw the ping pong balls in.

A: Right, okay.

Q: Actually one thing I have always wondered is why someone says “I’m a plumber by trade”. Why don’t they just say “I’m a plumber”?

A: Valid question. “By trade” is an idiom that is typically used to describe skilled manual jobs. So you’d hear someone is “a farmer by trade” or “an electrician by trade” but not “a doctor by trade” or “a lawyer by trade”.

Q: Why not those ones?

A: A “trade” is defined by Macquarie Dictionary as “a skilled occupation, especially one requiring manual labour: e.g. the trade of a carpenter; the trade of a printer.” It contrasts with a “profession” – described as “a vocation requiring knowledge of some department of learning or science, especially one of the three vocations of theology, law, and medicine: e.g. a lawyer by profession.”

Q: Oh okay, fair enough. But why say “by trade” at all?

A: Never question the crooked logic of idioms. Although, “by trade” is often used to contrast someone’s primary skills with something else they do. For example, “Jack is a carpenter by trade, and he also loves to paint.” Or “Jill is an actor by trade, but is currently waiting tables.”

Q: Can you be a “writer by trade”?

A: Yes. It was traditionally just for the “blue-collar” tradesperson roles, but today a “trade” can be applied to most jobs requiring technical skills. For example, it’s common these days to hear, “I’m a journalist by trade, but now I upload click bait”…

Q: Very informative! Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to cancel a 100kg order of carrots…

If you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like us to explore, email it to us today!


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