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In the National Geographic Society's Answer Book: Fast Facts about Our World (2010), edited by Kathryn Thornton, I found this line, but didn't understand the meaning of farmer by trade:

"Wilson A. "Snowflake" Bentley was a farmer by trade, but from the snowy landscape of Vermont he drew inspiration for another calling: documenting the intricate and apparently nonrepretitive designs of snowflakes."

  • What is the rest of the sentence? Generally, this is paired with a contrasting statement about the person's educational background or a prior job. – Catija Dec 22 '16 at 0:47
17

As others have stated, if I say "I'm a farmer by trade" I'm telling you that my job is farming.

It says a little bit more than that though. I'm saying that my job is as a farmer, but with an implication that there's more to me than my job. I might well say "I'm a farmer by trade, but really I love to paint"

A similar construction which I sometimes use myself is "by training". I'm a physicist by training (my degree is in physics), but a software engineer by trade ( I work as a software engineer)

8

A definition of someone's trade is what they do for a living, which is typically blue-collar physical labor, or something like carpentry, welding, etc. versus a white-collar office-type "profession".

You may wonder why this wasn't written:

Wilson A. "Snowflake" Bentley was a farmer, but ...

Saying "I am X by trade" rather than just "I am an X", you are saying that you are willing to do X as a job for others money/livelihood, rather than do X because you need it yourself. He did not only want to farm his own land, but considered it a job and did other things when he wasn't "at his job."

  • I wonder if this is a regional thing. Perhaps it is an age usage. I grew up in Canada and am in my sixties and 'by trade' was in common usage all through my working career. My father was an structural engineer by trade. You made me wonder and I like that. I would like to know what others think. – WRX Dec 22 '16 at 15:10
5

'by trade' means what his occupation or training is in. He was a banker by trade -- he works or worked in a bank. The farmer by trade -- farms or farmed.

  • Technically true, although I don't think you'd hear anyone say "banker by trade" - I believe it's generally used for blue collar jobs. YMMV. – Robert Grant Dec 22 '16 at 18:50
  • In older uses, "trade" referred to working-class occupations: being a grocer or a tailor, or a farmer, was a trade, while more upscale employment like banking was a "profession". In modern use, "trade" refers to almost any job that requires technical skills, although very highly trained jobs like doctor or lawyer are often excluded. – Malvolio Dec 22 '16 at 19:35
4

Firstly, trade means, according to Wiktionary, definition 6:

The skilled practice of a practical occupation.

And then by trade, also from Wiktionary:

Prepositional phrase. by trade. (idiomatic) As a profession; professionally. Although he was a gifted musician, he was a plumber by trade and never played music professionally.

As can also be seen from this example, the phrase by trade is generally used to show the contrast between the said person's outward work-appearance and the expected stereotypes as opposed to a particular detail which is somewhat unexpected, but happens to be the case here.

In your example, the farmer is more expected to be planning his crop rotation for the next few seasons than studying snowflake intricacies.

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