Q: I recently wrote a criticism of a certain individual, calling him “incompetent,” then escalating to “inept.” Or so I thought. Are those two terms in fact synonyms, as some on the Internet claim? I thought ineptitude was a step further than incompetence.
A: When “inept” and “incompetent” took on their usual modern meanings in the 1600s, “inept” was the more negative term, but the two words have grown closer over the years, and a few standard dictionaries now define “inept” as “incompetent.”
Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), for example, says one of the senses of “inept” is “generally incompetent” while the online Collins English Dictionary gives one meaning as “awkward, clumsy, or incompetent.”
In the 17th century, both “inept” and “incompetent” meant incapable of doing something, but “inept” had the additional sense of silly or foolish.
Some standard dictionaries still include the silly or foolish sense in their definitions of “inept,” so you’re right to think that “inept” is “a step further,” as you put it, than “incompetent.”
A complication is that “inept” is sometimes confused with “inapt” (not suitable or appropriate) and “unapt” (not likely or inclined)—three words that overlap somewhat.
An “inept” job seeker, for example, may be “inapt” for a certain position or “unapt” to be hired for it.
Some usage guides say “inept” is the more negative of the three terms, and consider its use rude or insulting.
Fowler’s Modern English Usage (rev. 3rd ed.) describes “inept” as an “impolite use” while “inapt” and “unapt” are “reasonably polite.”
Garner’s Modern American Usage (3rd ed.) says “inept” is “usually intended as an insult” and “it’s an inapt choice in other contexts.”
When “inept” first showed up in English in 1603, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it meant “not adapted or adaptable; not suited [for or to] a purpose; without aptitude; unsuitable, unfit.”
The OED’s first citation is from John Florio’s 1603 translation of a Montaigne essay: “A maner peculiar vnto my selfe, inept to all publike Negotiations.”
A year later, “inept” was recorded in the sense of “absurd; wanting in reason or judgement; silly, foolish,” according to the dictionary.
The first example is from A Counterblaste to Tobacco, a 1604 treatise by King James I of England (James VI of Scotland), expressing his distaste for tobacco:
“As to the Proposition, That because the braines are colde and moist, therefore things that are hote and drie are best for them, it is an inept consequence.”
Later in the 1600s, “inept” came to mean “not suited to the occasion; not adapted to circumstances; out of place, inappropriate.”
The OED’s earliest example is from a 1675 religious treatise by Richard Baxter: “If they mean Negative Propositions, it’s true, but inept.”
We’ll skip the legal senses of “incompetent” (not qualified as testimony or lacking the mental ability to stand trial), which showed up in English in the late 1500s.
In the mid-1600s, “incompetent” took on its modern sense of “inadequate ability or fitness; not having the requisite capacity or qualification; incapable.”
The first Oxford citation is from Fragmenta Regalia, Robert Naunton’s 1641 account of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I: “Sir Francis Knowles was somewhat neare in the Queenes affinitie, and had likewise noe incompetent issue.”
We’ve written before on our blog about the Latin origins of “inept” (also “ept,” “adept,” and “apt”): As we wrote, there was no English word “ept” until it was deliberately created as a humorous antonym to “inept” in the 1930s.
“Inept,” as we said, can be traced to the Latin ineptus, which the OED defines as “unsuited, absurd, foolish.” The Latin word is composed of the negative prefix in- plus the noun aptus, meaning a general tendency.
“Competent,” the opposite of “incompetent,” has been part of the language since the 1400s. It comes from the Latin adjective competentem (suitable, fitting, proper, lawful), which is derived from the verb competere (from which we get “compete”).
So etymologically, the notion of being “competent” is related to the idea of being “competitive,” and an “incompetent” person can’t “compete.”
The classical Latin competere, by the way, was formed from com– (together) and petere (aim at, fall upon, strive, reach for). To the Romans, competere originally meant to fall together, coincide, or be suitable.
But in medieval Latin competere came to mean “strive together,” as John Ayto explains in his Dictionary of Word Origins. That’s the sense that gave us our word “compete.”
This is a reminder that Latin, while it was still a living language, grew and changed with the times—just as English does today.