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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

skill set

(1990’s | computerese | “skills,” “what one is good at,” “profile”)

The first question I asked myself about this term was whether it pertains to a person or a job. You see it used either way, which is fitting because a skill set is really what we would now call an interface between a person and a job. The earliest uses I found more often associated it with a person, but always in an occupational context. That made it hard to separate the individual from the position, as when you talk about “the skill set a manager needs.” But “skill set” was never quite as restrictive as “qualifications.” A skill set generally includes at least a few talents extraneous to a given line of work, but “qualifications” covers only those skills useful for the job.

Taking a skill set as characteristic of a person permits a synecdoche that I have seen a few times on the sports page recently, as in a baseball GM looking for “the right skill set” or “a specific skill set.” That is, a player who does a few specialized things very well, or who gives the team an advantage in certain situations. Often, the implication is that the player has only these skills or is useful only in these situations.

The interesting question semantically is whether the term is singular or plural. (I’m not talking about how it’s construed grammatically.) Does each person have one skill set, which comprises all their useful characteristics, or do people have several skill sets, applicable to different situations, that comprise complexes of selected skills? If you see the term as applied to persons, then the former will make more sense; if you see it as characteristic of a job or task, you’ll favor the latter. You might have an employee versatile enough to write reports, keep books, and maintain the network. Does that person have multiple skill sets? My sense is that she does. Although you will see the word used as if it means “all one’s skills considered as a group,” that sense is less ordinary and easy.

Computer-industry executives provided the first examples I found in LexisNexis, from around 1985. There are a few examples in Google Books before 1980, as a technical term in statistics, but it denotes an abstractly considered set of skills rather than referring to a group of abilities characteristic of a particular person or group of people. We will never know who invented this term. It’s not striking or provocative, and there’s no rush to take credit for it, or to trace it back to some celebrity or other. It’s a humble, anyone-could-have-thought-of-it coinage, representing a modest inflation from the old word for it, “skills” (as in “O.k., what are your skills?”), which is mostly what it has replaced. Like a lot of expressions we didn’t need, it has carved out a place for itself.


(1980’s | businese? | “interested party,” “participant”)

This word goes back a long way in legalese, denoting a neutral party who holds money pending the resolution of a dispute. The way we use it now, its sense has pivoted 180 degrees to “anyone with an interest in any institution or policy” — the opposite of a neutral party. I can’t say for sure that today’s usage can be traced directly back to the legal term, though; maybe it’s a simple back formation from the idea of a “stake” as a significant interest. If the progress of a company, or a school system, or a neighborhood really matters to you, you hold a stake.

The word as we know it came along circa 1980 among bankers and executives as a way of including more people, or at least pretending to include more people, in working out a bank’s or company’s plans. A local manufacturer would make a point of consulting stakeholders — distinct from stockholders — so employees, customers, suppliers, and the community at large all could have a say. The point was to give voice to someone besides the usual heavyweights, to include the people who may not have a direct financial interest but do have something riding on the decisions made by the company. In many cases, no doubt, appeals to stakeholders were intended to keep them from interfering with the shareholders by acknowledging their grievances and throwing them an occasional bone.

Now “the stakeholders” is more or less synonymous with “everyone involved.” The word has fanned out: financial writers distinguish between internal and external stakeholders, and stakeholder relations has taken its place as a subfield of public relations. Our society being as interconnected as it is, you can come up with a long list of stakeholders for any venture. Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R-CA) recently provided the following list for “Prescription Drug Take Back Day”: the Collaborating and Acting Responsibly to Ensure Safety (C.A.R.E.S.) Alliance, the National Association of Drug Diversion Investigators, the American Society of Pain Management, Project Lazarus, Walgreens, and the Palm Springs Police Department. That about covers the ground, don’t you think? So many stakeholders, so little time.

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