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I'm just reading "On Writing Well" by William Zinsser. I didn't get far - on page 5 he uses the phrase "Maybe I should take up surgery on the side."

From the context I would deduce it means something like changing/flipping the side, but googling for this sentence I only find references to the book itself. Is this an established idiom and what's the connection to a surgery here?

To give some more context:

[...] it had never occurred to him that writing could be hard. I told him I was just as interested in his answers — it had never occurred to me that writing could be easy. Maybe I should take up surgery on the side.

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The phrase on the side is a tricky one, because it has several possible meanings.

If I had a cyst on my torso, and was going to have it removed next week, I could tell you that I was going to have surgery on the side.

Of course, in this context, we are referring to one of these two idiomatic meanings (definitions from NOAD):

on the side
1 in addition to one's regular job or as a subsidiary source of income : no one lived in the property, but the caretaker made a little on the side by renting rooms out.
2 secretly, esp. with regard to a relationship in addition to one's legal or regular partner : Brian had a mistress on the side.

There's nothing furtive going on here, so that rules out meaning #2. What the writer really means here:

Maybe I should take up surgery as part-time work.

In this context, the writer is trying to say that the two could learn a lot from each other: what comes natural to one is not nearly so simple for the other.

One more important detail: no one takes up surgery on the side. We might sell real estate on the side, we might tutor or teach on the side, or we might work in a restaurant or retail store on the side. But surgery is a skill and profession that requires years of intense training. So the writer here is being humorous. He doesn't really intend to take up surgery as an extra job, but he's reinforcing the notion that sometimes it's easy to forget how difficult something can be after we have been fully trained.

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I thought about this a little bit longer and I think the answer is (embarrassingly) simple.

His conversation partner is a doctor who writes as an avocation, while he is a professional writer. So the reference to the surgery is most likely to be taken literally.

Sorry for the stupid question. I just didn't realize "on the side" could mean "as an avocation".

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    The only stupid question is the one that isn't asked. – StoneyB Sep 5 '15 at 21:20
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    And really ”on the side” refers to a second or part-time job; one that is not your main source of income. – Jim Sep 5 '15 at 22:08
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    I don't see this as a "stupid" question, I see it as an exemplary one. You've asked the question in exactly the way we've asked people to ask questions on ELL. We ask for people to share their research – you did. We ask for people to provide full context – you did. You asked about an interesting phrase that is instinctive to the native speaker but understandably tricky for the novice – and those are the kinds of questions enjoyed by both learner and native alike. I'm glad you opted to post your own answer instead of deleting the question. – J.R. Sep 5 '15 at 22:13

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