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occupational customs


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There are few places of work which have no customs or lore attached to them at all, even if it is only the buying of cakes on one's birthday or the office Christmas party. Some occupations, however, have a much wider range of traditional practices and beliefs. Outsiders often dismiss the older customs as barbaric or ‘anything for an excuse to get drunk’, but insiders argue that such events are only a bit of fun and help to promote camaraderie and loyalty to workmates which helps in the daily grind of work, and anyway they survived it all right in their time. Such customs, indeed, range from the mild, low key, and friendly to the boisterous and wild horseplay which can clearly be used as a guise for cruelty and victimization. Customs usually cluster around particular identifiable points in an individual's working life: entering a trade or a new firm (footing/initiation), qualifying as a fully-fledged worker (banging out, for example), leaving a firm or retiring. Some trades have particular points in the work cycle to celebrate, such as completing a building (topping out) or crossing the line at sea. Other times for celebration are key events in the worker's life outside the workplace, in particular his/her impending wedding, birth of a baby, and so on.

The first key point is starting at a new workplace, and various customs exist to ‘welcome’ or initiate a newcomer. A key variable is the age and status of the worker—new youngsters are more likely to be greeted with practical jokes and horseplay, while older people changing jobs would normally get away with buying a round of drinks. The latter was formalized in the past in many trades as ‘footing’, which the English Dialect Dictionary defines as ‘the entrance upon a new position or occupation: the fine levied upon a new workman, &c., generally spent in drink. Usually in phrase To pay one's footing’. Thomas Gent, later famous as a printer in York, described a custom enacted when he joined a London printing firm about 1713 is his The Life of Mr. Thomas Gent, Printer, of York (1832), 15–17).

At the darker end of the spectrum is the ‘initiation rite’ with which newcomers are greeted, which can be the disguise for bullying and racial or sexual harassment. Practices in the British army were heavily criticized during the 1980s for allowing degrading and barbaric rites, and the Fire Service was similarly attacked for customs apparently aimed at keeping women out of the occupation (Folklore Society Cuttings File). A less vindictive way of greeting novices existed in many trades and businesses, and involved sending the youngster to fetch some non-existent item—striped paint, sky-hooks, the burglars' address book, elbow grease, pigeon's milk, and so on. All the seasoned workers are party to the joke and contrive to send the dupe on to someone else, in some versions giving him/her something to carry on the way (traditional examples in N&Q 186 (1944), 24, 78–9, 120–1, 124, 278).

The most tenacious of occupational customs, now mainly associated with the printing trade but previously practised more widely, is the ‘banging-out’ of apprentices as they reach the end of their training, which still (1998) takes place despite being frowned on by many employers and Trade Unions. In modern guise, the ceremony usually involves the victim being tied up, covered in anything sticky and nasty and left outside in some public place, but previous examples also stress the noise involved (see printing trade). A similar custom existed in other trades, such as coopering, where it was called Trussing the Cooper. Most apprentices are relatively willing, but things can go very wrong, and there are occasional reports of accidents and even the death of the victim (e.g. Guardian (22 Dec. 1989).

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