Saturday, December 27, 2008


Avocation: An Auto-Antonym?

Bergen Evans and Cornelia Evans, A Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage (New York: Random House, 1957), s.v. avocation:
In America the older meanings of the words are kept: A man's vocation is his ordinary occupation, business, or profession (that particular state or function to which it has pleased God to call him. His avocation is that which calls him away from his vocation—some minor occupation or hobby.

Colloquially in America and more frequently in England, avocation is sometimes used as if it meant vocation, but this is wrong.
If the meaning "profession" is accepted, avocation is an auto-antonym, a word that can mean the opposite of itself.

See also William B. Hodgson, Errors in the Use of English, 4th ed. (Edinburgh: David Douglas, 1882), p. 7:
AVOCATION has entered English straight from the Latin, where avocatio, avocator, and avocare (ab, 'from,' and vocare, 'to call') alike convey the notion of calling off, diverting, distracting, or interrupting, as Senectus avocat a rebus gerendis, 'Old age calls us away from the conduct of business' (CIC., Sen. 5, 15). In this sense avocation was exclusively employed by our writers of the seventeenth and the earlier part of the eighteenth century, being often opposed to vocation (that state to which men are called). During the last hundred years, however, these words, as distinct etymologically as abrogate and arrogate, have become confounded—a confusion that Skeat unwillingly accepts, defining avocation by 'pursuit, employment, business,' while pointing out that the prefix a- is the Latin ab, and not ad, 'to.' .... Briefly, the case is this: If avocation and vocation are to be held synonymous, English is poorer by a useful, and richer by a superfluous, term.
An interesting criminal action for Sabbath-breaking turned on the use of avocation to mean vocation in an Indiana statute:
It may be true that the draftsman of the bill was somewhat unfortunate in the choice of language by the employment of the word "avocation," for vocation. The primary meaning of the word "avocation" is a calling away, a diversion, which, of course, is the very opposite of vocation, or occupation. Good writers do not use the word (in the singular number) in the sense in which it is evidently employed in the statute.
Ross v. State, 9 Ind. App. 35, 38, 36 N.E. 167, 168 (1894).

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