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The Oldest Profession

Adam Naming the Creatures, 1847 Currier & Ives print

It has been vulgarly claimed that prostitution is the oldest profession. Wrong! It’s lexicography.

Here’s proof:

As we have learned, perhaps in elementary school, a word isn’t a word unless it’s in the dictionary.

If it’s not a word, you can’t use it.

Therefore, you need the dictionary before you can utter a word. So dictionary making has to be among the oldest of professions, if not the oldest.

This logic, incidentally, solves the question of the origin of human language, a question that has vexed linguists ever since Darwin proposed his theory of evolution.

Linguists know that languages change drastically over the course of a few thousand years, so drastically that there’s no telling what the original human language was like or how it came into being. Language consists of words, not rocks, so there are no linguistic fossils comparable to the fossils in rock that reveal ancient stages of plant and animal evolution. We won’t find echoes of the first words embedded in the walls of a cave.

As a result, scientific speculation about the origins of language has remained speculation. In the 19th century the Linguistic Society of Paris went so far as to prohibit discussions on the origins of language, as a waste of time. In the 21st century we know much more about language, evolution, and neurobiology, but that merely offers more input for speculation.

It has been argued, for example, that early humans invented language by imitating sounds around them (nicknamed the “bow-wow” theory by skeptical linguists), by imitating body movement (“ta-ta”), by elaborating on grunts and exclamations (“pooh-pooh” or “yo-heave-ho”), from emotional interactions (“sing-song”), and many others.

I have a better explanation, based on pure logic. I’ll call it the “Johnny Appleseed” explanation.

Picture this scene: Hundreds of thousands of years ago, when proto-humans were clustered in Africa, one person was struck by lightning, or maybe inherited a mutant gene (my biology isn’t that expert), or somehow otherwise found himself or herself with the ability to make words, perhaps with one or more of the stimuli mentioned above. This person then went to the other members of his or her tribe and planted the seeds of vocabulary in their heads—an oral dictionary, as it were, because writing hadn’t been invented. All this gave the tribe a great advantage for survival.

Maybe, to add excitement to the story, this person then wandered from tribe to tribe, planting words everywhere. Or maybe a rival tribe kidnapped the person to learn the secret. Wouldn’t that make a great movie?

So words and the dictionary came first. A while later, you can imagine a grammarian coming along, tidying the mishmash of words into proper sentences, the forebear of the writers of the usage manuals we have nowadays.

Not convinced? Please open your Bible to the book of Genesis. There you will read that Adam’s first job, even before Eve was created, was—lexicographer. God told Adam to name all the animals God was busy creating.

Genesis 2:19-20: “And out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof.

“And Adam gave names to all cattle, and to the fowl of the air, and to every beast of the field.”

QED!

You read it here first.

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