The Grammarphobia Blog

The skills in your skill set

Q: Have you weighed in on “skill set”? It strikes me as corporate jargon, but it showed up in a recent review of Peniel E. Joseph’s Stokely in the New York Times.

A: Our guess is that “skill set” originated not in the corporate world but in academia, another wellspring of jargon.

The earliest examples we’ve found, dating from the late 1960s and early ’70s, are from books about education and psychology.

The first example we’ve came across is from Peter James Arnold’s Education, Physical Education, and Personality Development (1968):

“For example, the phrase ‘being careful’ meant various things to the participants and this in turn affected their approach in tackling the skill set.” Arnold’s field was kinesiology, the study of human movement.

The next is from a psychology text, Wayne Lee’s Decision Theory and Human Behavior (1971): “Perhaps the skill set was critical here.”

The noun phrase becomes more common in the mid-1970s (it appears twice in the reports of the National Computer Conference and Exposition, published in 1974).

And by the mid-1980s it has become almost routine in many fields—academia, business, computing, aviation, law, and others. 

You won’t have much luck finding “skill set” in standard dictionaries.  Perhaps that’s because lexicographers feel the parts explain the whole—a “skill set” is simply a set of skills, just as a “tool set” is a set of tools.

One of the few sources that includes the phrase is Oxford Dictionaries online, which defines “skill set” as “a person’s range of skills or abilities.”

Examples given include “The jobs are out there; you just need the skill sets,” and “Typically, forces deployed to peace operations use different skill sets to execute required missions.”

By the way, the word “skill” once had very different meanings than it does today.

It came into Middle English in the 1100s from an Old Norse word (skil) meaning distinction or difference, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

In the 12th through 14th centuries, the OED says, “skill” had such meanings as these:

(1) “that which is reasonable, proper, right, or just”; (2) “reason as a faculty of the mind”; (3) “discrimination or discretion”;  (4) “a sense of what is right or fitting”; (5) “cause, reason, or ground”; and even (6) “a statement made by way of argument or reasoning.”

All those senses are long dead. Only one early meaning has survived—a 13th-century usage defined by the OED this way:

“Capability of accomplishing something with precision and certainty; practical knowledge in combination with ability; cleverness, expertness. Also, an ability to perform a function, acquired or learnt with practice.”

That sense of the word, you might say, has survival in its skill set.

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