On Colleagues, Contacts, and Coworkers; or What We Call People We (kind of) Know (With a side of vintage Paul Reubens)

As a writer, I am not unique in finding words fascinating … and funny and frustrating and fickle (ie. slippery, deceitful, dangerous, and unreliable).  I’m equally interested in how our individual vocabularies change throughout our lifetime; there are endless examples of this, but I am thinking specifically of the acquisition of “grown-up” words.  As we age, study, train, specialize, and so on, we gain access to certain words that (supposedly) point to our years of experience, our achievements and credentials, and our relationship to others.

One such word is colleague.  It’s a rather formal and mature-sounding word, right?  A word as distinguished in sound as it is in meaning.  Here’s the thing: while I’m certainly old enough and enough of a professional to call people I know in my profession a colleague, I am wary of using the word.  I think this is also because I’ve heard the word used with an air (whether unconscious or not) of pretentiousness.  And now that I’ve looked up the etymology of the word, I can make better sense of this wary feeling.

It has Latin origins (one chosen along with another, a partner in office), and its first noted used in English dates back to 1524.  OED offers two definitions: 1. one who is associated with another…in office, or special employment; strictly, said of those who stand in the same relationship to their electors; 2. a confederate, an ally (obs. rare).  (I like the second definition better.)  Along with definition 1. there is a parenthetical exception, “not applied to partners in trade or manufacture.”  Ah hah! The word is, historically, classist!

The much less distinguished, more mundane sounding word ‘co-worker,’ which dates back to 1643 in English usage, is, at least, pretty straight forward and free of negative implication, even if a bit bland: one who works with another.  And, then, there is also the more intimate word ‘contact,’ which originates from the Latin word for ‘touching.’  The word contact says ‘this person is my peeps’: a person who can be called upon for assistance, information; an acquaintance, esp. one who can be useful in business.  (And this usage of ‘contact’ is really recent, dating back to just 1931.)

So what’s the real point of this post, you ask.  No, I don’t have too much time on my hands.  I am actually working to get a play from page to stage right now, and so I have been in communication with many different people to get this project underway. (More on this in a future post!)  In the process, I have been reflecting on how strange (and also wonderful) life can be, particularly (1) the way people from our past can reenter our lives at just right time and in the most meaningful and magnanimous ways and (2) the way new people enter our lives everyday due, namely, to the world shrinking abilities of the web.  I don’t think it’s appropriate to call these people colleagues or coworkers, so I guess I shall call them contacts, and friends!

On an unrelated note, I offer you two glorious clips of Paul Reubens (aka PeeWee Herman) from the Gong Show.  In the first clip from 1976, Paul and his, ummm, colleague, no, co-actor perform as “Betty and Eddy the Sound Machine Sensation.”  In the second clip from 1979, Paul and another co-actor perform as “Suave and Debonnaire.”  I especially love the first clip!


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