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Plying their trade

Posted by RRC on February 28, 2008 at 16:35:

In Reply to: Plying their trade posted by Victoria S Dennis on February 28, 2008 at 08:30:

: : A two parter: 1- What is the origin of the phrase "plying their trade" and 2- I only remember hearing this in reference to prostitutes... are there limits to the type(s) of professions used with that phrase?

: "Ply", being a variant form of "apply", means "to apply, work busily at", and in that sense "ply one's trade" was once used of any kind of occupation. (You could speak, for example, of a tailor "plying his needle".)However, "ply" has a second sense. Of a ship, boat or bus, it means to travel regularly between certain places; and of a porter, taxi, etc, to "ply for hire" means "to attend or have one's stand at a regular place to be hired". ("Ply for hire" is still a technical term in the UK, used in taxi licensing regulations, etc.) Since streetwalkers do indeed "ply for hire" in just this way, it's natural that theirs is one of the few occupations of which "ply one's trade" is still rotutinely used. (VSD)

A quick Google gives 102,000 hits. Looking at the first four pages (40 hits), I'd guess less than 20% were referencing sex workers. The first page, for example, also has fortune tellers, athletes in several sports, fashion giants, and tax lawyers all plying their trade.