The article's headline promised a story "on the life of a journeyman musician." It discussed a man who has been around a while and plays many instruments, saying he "makes great music, skillfully rendered pop-rock."
Another article called a player "the future of American soccer," saying "he was considered a 'journeyman' when coming to San Jose during the 2009 season. He started in only 11 games through '09 and didn't become a regular until the 2010 season, when he started 29 games and became the league's leading scorer."
And another wrote of apprentice programs, saying "Most apprentices receive graduated pay that begins at about half of what a journeyman or mentor worker earns."
In one usage, the longtime musician is talented; in another, the player was only so-so until he broke out; and in the third, the worker is experienced, with no sense of quality attached. As we've seen so many times, context is everything.
The word "journeyman" traces itself to the idea of a day's work for a day's pay, though that definition is called obsolete in Webster's New World College Dictionary (Fourth Edition). WNW's other definitions of "journeyman" are "a worker who has served an apprenticeship and is therefore qualified to work at a specified trade" and "any sound, experienced, but not brilliant craftsman or performer."
In the pre-industrial era, workers seeking a trade or craft would apprentice with a "master" until they reached "journeyman" status. Many then would travel from village to village offering their services, adding the physical "journey" to the definition.
Craft and trade unions and licensing authorities apply "journeyman" without any qualitative nuance. A "journeyman" plumber, for example, is one who has fulfilled certain schooling and experience requirements, and has passed an exam. A "journeyman" must still work under a "master" in many states. The only qualitative nuance is the implication that the plumber was competent enough to make it to that point.
While it's OK to call an experienced person a "journeyman," beware: The word can imply "undistinguished," or worse. The Oxford English Dictionary, which traces the first use of "journeyman" to 1463, notes that one definition, "one who is not a 'master' of his trade or business," is "chiefly depreciatory."
In other words, calling someone a "journeyman" could be taken as an insult.
Though "journeywoman" made its first appearance in 1733, the OED says, it rarely appears today, even when women are being described. One step backward for feminism?
A TV series, Journeyman, featuring a time-traveling reporter, qualifies for all possible uses of "journeyman": long-serving (across time), experienced wage slave (reporter), but mediocre. How do we know the last? The series was canceled after only a few months. It was a short journey.
Merrill Perlman is adjunct assistant professor at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and president of Merrill Perlman Consulting, offering consulting and freelance editing services and training in journalism, grammar and usage. Among her clients are The New York Times, ProPublica and the Poynter Institute. She writes the "Language Corner" column and blog for Columbia Journalism Review. Merrill retired in June 2008 after 25 years at The New York Times, most recently as director of copy desks with responsibility for managing 150 copy editors.Click here to read other articles by Merrill Perlman