Packing up our skill sets and going to work

As their world dissolves into zeros and ones, no wonder techies and think-tankers turn to the vocabulary of hands-on labor.

Hani Mohammed/AP/File
A silhouette of Yemeni laborers as they work at a traditional brick factory on the outskirts of Sanaa, Yemen, June 2012. As our world dissolves into zeros and ones, becomes ever more digitized and virtualized, we turn to words that sound more solid and hands-on.

A colleague and I were playing instant-message ping-pong the other day from our respective offices, trying to tie down the countless loose ends entailed in getting a book to the printer.

Many of these concerned editorial consistency. Did we capitalize this phrase in Chapter 11? (No.) Hyphenate that phrase earlier? (Yes, but only when it was used adjectivally.) What about "skill set"? Do we have to hyphenate it when used as an adjective? (Yes.)

Harrumph. "Skill set" is not my favorite locution, I grumbled.

It's much beloved in our nation's capital, my colleague informed me, and in the tech industry. He recalled someone who had gotten fired because his employer wanted "someone with a different skill set."

You might have inferred otherwise, but the organization in question was not a manufacturer or a builder. The people who worked there didn't exactly make anything; they labored in the realm of policy and ideas.

And so how ironic it was that they turned to a metaphor suggesting an aging leather tool belt – and yet how understandable, too.

In his 1992 book, "The Work of Nations," former US Labor Secretary Robert Reich described contemporary knowledge workers as "symbolic analysts." Nineteenth-century workers tended to push "things" around – ingots of pig iron, for instance, in Frederick Taylor's famous time-and-motion experiments. The white-collar workforce of 100 years ago was full of people who "pushed paper around," as the saying went. The "symbolic analysts" of today push symbols and data around.

As our world dissolves into zeros and ones, becomes ever more digitized and virtualized, we turn to words that sound more solid and hands-on.

Skill is one of them. It came into English in the late 12th century meaning "power of discernment," according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. It came from a verb meaning "to distinguish" or "to separate." By around 1300 the word had acquired a sense of "cleverness" or "ability."

Skill came from Old Norse, like a number of words in English beginning with "sk": skin, skirt, skull, sky.

Today, skill means "the ability to use one's knowledge effectively and readily in execution or performance," according to Merriam-Webster, and also "dexterity or coordination especially in the execution of learned physical tasks."

Note the hands-on aspect. Even today's knowledge workers benefit from good hand-eye coordination and keyboard skills. As Hanna Rosin pointed out recently in The Atlantic, the kind of parents who give their toddlers iPads to play with like to quote Italian educator Maria Montessori: "The hands are the instruments of man's intelligence."

My grumble with "skill set" is that it clutters up a perfectly fine monosyllable, on the model of "price tag" or "ground rules." And "skill set" may sound rather like "tool box" – and surely you've noticed all those little "wrench" icons to indicate "tools" for working with software?

Wikipedia has an interesting list of English words from Old Norse, full of punchy little words: verbs like call, get, and irk; nouns like gap, knot, and link. Is such conciseness even legal today?

As I lumber through techno-babble like "synchronous dynamic random access memory" and "non-authenticating query service," I wonder: What would the Vikings have called these things?

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