Tuesday, January 16th, 2018...2:31 am

“What’s a skill?”: A Look at the Etymology of Skill

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Sam  Campling

Throughout my childhood, I was a competitive figure skater, and as with most other competitive athletes, I fought to be the winner at every competition. However, there was always someone who was better than me, hence why I am not presently a competitive skater. When someone beat me, I found myself wondering; are they naturally gifted at this sport? Or, did they work tirelessly to become the best? I mostly just told myself they paid off the judges, even though that was obviously false. Many people are lucky enough to be proficient in an activity naturally. Some people are not as lucky, but at least have a work ethic strong enough to push through and become proficient in an activity of choice. Either way, these people who are proficient have what you would call a skill.

Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry Night (1889). One of his most popular paintings.

In the present, the term skill refers to the “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 learned from practice”. (Oxford English Dictionary) As examples, Sidney Crosby is skilled in the sport of hockey, Vincent Van Gogh was skilled in the art of drawing and painting, and Shania Twain is skilled in the art of singing. These three mentioned excel in their respective activities.

Bishop of Angers’ Viking Invasion (1100), which shows a Viking ship out at sea.

The English word skill has a long history, which began long before the word got integrated in the lexicon. When the word was first introduced to the English speaking nation, it is said to have come from the Old Norse word skil, which is defined, in English, as “distinction”. (Merriam-Webster Dictionary Online) Old Norse, an ancient Scandinavian language, was introduced to English speakers during the raids of Vikings in the late eighth century. (Mastin) There are also similar words from two languages, besides English, that are said to be also influenced by Old Norse, such as the Swedish skäl, and the Danish skjel and skel. (Oxford English Dictionary) Once established enough in the English language to be used, and documented, which was around the year 1200, the word skill meant “Reason as a faculty of the mind; the power of discrimination”. (Oxford English Dictionary) This meaning is now obsolete.

As the definition of the word continued throughout history, the basic meaning stayed vaguely the same, “the ability to make distinctions”, which in the present definition, makes sense. A profound skill sets you aside from others you are competing with, or being compared to in your respective field. Without the skill of the trade you are in, you will be stuck under others who always had, or acquired the skill you are in search of. No one talks about where the fifth best place to get a burger, only the first.

Not only does the definition have a past, but so do the phonemes that make up this word. The beginning consonant sequence of the word, /sk/, was always an English consonant sequence, but the present /sk/-using words in the English lexicon are not the same words as the /sk/-using words from the past. The words that started with /sk/ prior to the Viking influence got changed to the “sh” consonant sequence instead. This change happened in the sixth century. The reason for the change is still unknown, although some believe it was a linguistic “rule change.” (Akmajian et al. 321) However, this does show signs of being a form of palatalization (Liu). This sound, used in other words such as skull, or skin, came from the influence of the Scandinavian language of Old Norse on the English language.

Although many of us have never wondered what the etymology of the word skill is, I know we all dream about having a skill, if you do not have one already. Luckily for the other commoners like me, you now know the etymology of this word, so you could say that you have a skill for the knowledge of the word skill.


Akmajian, Adrian, et al. “Linguistics: An Introduction to Language and Communication” 7th ed. The MIT Press. 2017. Pg. 321. Accessed 16 December 2017

Bishop of Angers. Viking Invasion. 1100, The Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. https://naturalhistory.si.edu/vikings/voyage/subset/homelands/pop_history2.html. Accessed 10 January 2018.

Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica. “Palatalization.” Britannica, 20 July 1998. https://www.britannica.com/topic/palatalization. Accessed 10 January 2018.

Harper, Douglas “skill, n.” Online Etymology Dictionary, 2001-2018. Accessed 15 December 2017.

Liu, Yin. Personal communication. 9 January 2018.

Mastin, Luke. “Old English (c. 500-1100).” The History of English, 2011. Accessed 15 December 2017.

“Skill.” Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web, 23 December 2017. Accessed 15 December 2017.

“skill, n. OED Online.” Oxford University Press, October 2017. Accessed 4 October. 2017.

Van Gogh, Vincent. Starry Night. June 1889. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Museum of Modern Art, https://www.moma.org/collection/works/79802. Accessed 28 December 2017.

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