Ah, February, the brief month of Cupid and Valentine, roses and and rom-coms, serenades and amateurs.
Wait. What's amateur got to do with it?
More than you may think. If love is on your mind, amateur should be, too. The word is more lovable than we give it credit for; in fact, if we were guided by history and etymology, we'd all be proud to wear amateur on our sleeves.
Its first three letters are a clue that amateur comes from the Beginning Latin verb amare, "to love." (Amo: I love. Amas: you love. Amat: He/she/it loves.) An amator in ancient Rome was a friend or lover; by the time the word migrated into English, around 1784, it had picked up not only a French suffix but also a new meaning: "someone who has a taste for an art or field of study, but does not practice it."
That sense of amateur was neutral enough, but from then on the word began losing respect, becoming a synonym for a "dabbler" or "dilettante" — an unserious person who does nothing well. (Dilettante tells a story similar to that of amateur: its Latin root means "delight.") By 1906, that famous cynic Ambrose Pierce would define amateur in his Devil's Dictionary as "a public nuisance who mistakes taste for skill, and confounds his ambition with his ability." The former journalist Edward Klein displayed his contempt for the 44th president of the United States by giving his 2012 book the title The Amateur: Barack Obama in the White House.
But amateur is quirky. Its reputation isn't wholly bad — and lately there have been spirited attempts to reclaim and honor its original meaning.
Much of amateur's bad rep comes from the contrast with professional, a word that in the 15th century referred to the "profession" of religious orders and by the mid-18th century meant "related to a career" such as law or medicine. By the mid-19th century a professional was someone who pursued a sport or an art for money; indeed, in the late 19th century professionalism was sometimes used disparagingly, implying not skill and ethics but a willingness to sell out — what we might now call "careerism."
Amateur was already sliding toward disgrace by then. The adjective amateurish, "having the deficiencies of amateur work," was in circulation by 1864. Amateur dramatics, performed by non-professional actors in local theater groups, was considered mildly derogatory by 1887 in the U.S.
In the United States, our associations with amateur have been influenced by two mid-20th-century cultural institutions: "Amateur Night" and "Amateur Hour." Generic "amateur nights" — an American talent-show invention — were popular by the 1850s, but it took the actor and producer Ralph Cooper to launch the original "Harlem Amateur Hour" in April 1933 at New York's Lafayette Theater. The following year, the show changed its name to "Amateur Night" after a move to the Apollo Theater, where it has continued to thrive, at least until the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. "Amateur Night at the Apollo" — originally called "Audition Night" — launched the careers of Ella Fitzgerald, Stevie Wonder, and many other performers; national live radio broadcasts helped make "Amateur Night" a household word.
The other big "amateur" influencer was the impresario Edward "Major" Bowes, who had hosted small amateur nights around the country before bringing "The Original Amateur Hour" to New York radio station WHN in 1934. Throughout its run, it was among the top ten radio broadcasts in the U.S.; after Bowes's death in 1948, his talent coordinator Ted Mack took over and brought the show to national television, where it ran through 1970 (plus a one-season revival in 1992). Many "Amateur Hour" contestants — including Frank Sinatra, Maria Callas, Gladys Knight, and José Feliciano — went on to have successful professional careers. Of course, many more did not. (In the early years the really awful performers were cut off by the ringing of a large gong.) By the 1950s, both "amateur night" and "amateur hour" were stand-ins for "inept" or "disorganized,"; as in a 1952 story in the Los Angeles Times that described Senator Estes Kefauver's presidential campaign as having "a strictly 'amateur night' atmosphere about it."
In at least two areas, though, amateur is a badge of honor. Highly proficient amateur athletes are paid in respect rather than money. In the U.S., collegiate athletics is at least nominally an amateur endeavor, with athletes eligible for scholarships but not, say, commercial endorsement deals. The Olympic Games were founded on lofty amateur ideals: The track and field star Jim Thorpe was stripped of his Olympic medals when it was learned that he had played baseball for money in 1912. In golf, "pro-am" tournaments — first conducted in the 1920s — invite professional and amateur players to compete against one another. The United States Golf Association, established in 1894, hosts the prestigious U.S. Amateur championship.
The other area in which amateur shines is amateur radio, which has been around since the early 20th century. In the U.S., amateur radio operators — known as "hams," from an early slur of "ham-fisted" telegraphists — must pass Federal Communications Commission licensing exams to transmit and receive messages on special amateur bands. Amateur radio operators often perform vital volunteer communication roles during emergencies.
Outside athletics and communications, there's been a quiet but growing movement to reclaim amateur from its sullied status. Lolly Lewis, the founder and director of the San Francisco–based Amateur Music Network, told me she has received pushback about the group's name: "Even some of my biggest supporters felt that 'amateur' would drive people away, that amateur meant 'no good at' or 'less than,'" she said. She took it as a challenge: "I want to champion the amateur by rehabilitating the word. Amateur means we love doing it!"
The journalist Tom Vanderbilt probably agrees. In his new book Beginners, he observes that "the idea of undertaking new pursuits, ones that you may never be very good at, seems perverse in this age of single-minded peak performance." Despite this — or because of it — he spent a year taking up new pursuits at which he wasn't very good, including singing and open-water swimming, and came to embrace and endorse amateurism.
Will amateur ever completely regain its amatory associations It's hard to say. But isn't it lovely to think so?