Avocation and Vocation

How To Understand These Commonly Confused Words

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The English language is full of words that sound similar but have different meanings - or ones that sound different but actually mean similar things. The nouns avocation and vocation are among the former group. Although these two nouns look and sound very similar, their meanings are actually not the same. 

Definitions

An avocation is a hobby or any other activity taken up in addition to one's regular work; it may especially refer to something that is a person's "true" passion or interest.

A vocation is one's principal occupation, often used in the context of a calling to a particular way of life or course of action.

Why Do They Sound Alike?

Both avocation and vocation derive originally from a Latin verb, vocare, which means "to call." Avocation derives from a compounded version of this word, avocatio, which compounded ab (a preposition meaning "away from") and vocare to create a word that signified a "distraction" or something off the main path. Since an avocation is an interest that's "off the path" of one's day-to-day work, it's easy to see how this word has come through. 

Vocation, in contrast, comes from vocare without any alterations. When the word vocation appears, it typically carries a connotation of not just a job, but a job that's part of a person's calling in life. It can still be used just as a synonym for "job" or "occupation," but in contemporary usage, it more often has that extra layer of meaning as a job that feels more like a calling.

Examples

  • Michel Roux is the chef of a London restaurant by profession and a marathon runner by avocation.
  • "Joan Feigenbaum . . . was delighted when she found her true vocation in the Summer Research Program at AT&T's famous Bell Labs."
    (Notable Women in Mathematics: A Biographical Dictionary, ed. by Charlene Morrow and Teri Perl. Greenwood, 1998)
  • "Music was the only vocation anyone had ever heard of for a blind child, and the church took up a collection of pennies and nickels to buy Pilgrim a fiddle."
    (Michael Crummey, Sweetland. Liveright, 2015) 

     

Practice

(a) After retiring from teaching, my father decided to focus on his longtime _____ of juggling.

(b) "By outward account Simone Weil was a failure several times over, yet in her true _____ as a writer she succeeded brilliantly."
(Thomas R. Nevin, Simone Weil: Portrait of a Self-Exiled Jew. The University of North Carolina Press, 1991) 

 

Answers to Practice Exercises

Glossary of Usage: Index of Commonly Confused Words

Answers to Practice Exercises: Avocation and Vocation

 

(a) After retiring from teaching, my father decided to focus on his longtime avocation of juggling.

(b) "By outward account Simone Weil was a failure several times over, yet in her true vocation as a writer she succeeded brilliantly."
(Thomas R. Nevin, Simone Weil: Portrait of a Self-Exiled Jew. The University of North Carolina Press, 1991) 
 

Glossary of Usage: Index of Commonly Confused Words