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I don't remember ever hearing "competency" until circa 1970. When I first heard that form it sounded very silly, as if someone was trying to sound lofty via the addition of superfluous syllables.

Is there a context where "competency" is correct usage, and "competence" wouldn't do just as well?

Is it a recent (last 40 yrs) permutation, or is it my sheltered background that made it sound that way?

(Is anyone here old enough to know?)

Okay, that's three questions, sorry!

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My answer would be that "competency" is to "competence" as "nonsency" is to "nonsense", the last of these four words being the pith of my answer! – user71905 Apr 13 '14 at 5:54

The 1831 edition of Noah Webster's dictionary defines competence and competency as synonyms:

Sufficiency, legal capacity, or right, fitness, adequacy.

Google Ngrams shows them being used roughly equally often until 1920, when competence starts winning. So competency is not an obnoxious neologism, although it reached a low point around 1960, and may have been revived slightly since then.

I believe that in modern usage, they are no longer exact synonyms.

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I stand corrected, then. Still hate the word, because I only hear it in an HR context, and that's a hard stink to wash off. – MT_Head Jun 6 '11 at 0:40
@MT_Head: I agree. Competency seems to be currently mainly used in education, business strategy, and HR contexts, all of which lend it some element of stink. – Peter Shor Jun 6 '11 at 0:42

Both words can be traced back to Shakespeare.

He used competence in Henry IV, Part 2, 1594:


And competency in The Merchant of Venice, 1600:


However, from Etymonline, it looks like these words originally had different meanings than they do now:

1590s, "rivalry;" c.1600 "adequate supply;" 1630s, "sufficiency of means for living at ease," from Fr. compétence, from L. competentia "meeting together, agreement, symmetry," from competens, prp. of competere (see compete). Meaning "sufficiency to deal with what is at hand" is from 1790.

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In general, "competence" is used to describe one's general fitness or ability - "Loughner's Mental Competence Is Doubted", Wall Street Journal headline - whereas "competency" (which, I agree, is an obnoxious neologism) means "fitness or ability to complete a certain task" - "Educational Competency Assessment."

I believe the distinction arose out of human-resources law; if you question someone's (an employee's, a coworker's) competence, you come perilously close to making a value judgment about them as a human being (which can lead to lawsuits); if you say that they "lack competency", they may be trained (or not) but you aren't damning them out of hand.

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Great stuff, folks. Thanks. – Safari7 Jun 6 '11 at 12:50
@Safari7: If you feel one of these has sufficiently answered your question, you can choose it by clicking the check icon to the left of the question. – Callithumpian Jun 6 '11 at 15:21

I have been looking for clarification on the difference, as competence and competency appear to be used to mean the same thing in our company documents. The best (and simplest) definition I found is:

Though both having similar meanings, competence and competency are used in different contexts.

Competence refers to a person’s ability or skills and knowledge that he possesses.

Competencies of a job refer to description of how things have to be done and at what level.

This comes from a very good article that can be found here.

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