In the Merriam-Webster dictionary skill is defined as


a: the ability to use one's knowledge effectively and readily in execution or performance

b: dexterity or coordination especially in the execution of learned physical tasks


learned power of doing something competently : a developed aptitude or ability

In Russian there are two words for different kinds of skills, "умение" (umeniye) and "навык" (navyk). The first word designates skill in the above three (1a, 1b, and 2) senses. The second word designates the kind of skill which doesn't require voluntary actions.

For example, a basketball coach teaches a kid to shoot a ball: the coach shows how to put a ball in a hand, how to locate and move an arm, how to use legs, how to release a ball, etc. After few attempts (let's assume that the kid is very talented) the kid is able to execute a shot in the way the coach taught him/her. The kid has acquired a shooting skill in the sense of умение (umeniye), because the kid still has to pay attention to his/her body position, arm movement, releasing technique... But after several days of practice the kid doesn't have to pay any attention to those things, because all these movements are done automatically (unlike, for example, shot selection). So the skill in the sense of умение (umeniye) became the skill in the sense of навык (navyk).

So I'm wondering is there a word in English to designate this notion of skill.

I have considered several options, but I’m not sure of their accuracy. The word ‘habit’ seems like the closest one. However, the main distinctive feature of the word ‘navyk’ is automatic or involuntary trait of an action, so the English analogue has to have the same feature. To me the main feature of the notion ‘habit’ is an inclination to do something in a particular manner. For example, I could say ‘I have a habit to eat eggs for breakfast’. Habit in this context doesn’t require any skill, while shooting a basketball does. Moreover, I could lose a skill (or even ability) to do something, but a habit could remain, I just won’t be able to satisfy my habit (or it would be more difficult if I lose a skill in the sense of 'navyk').


The word "skill" could be applied not only to physical activities, such as shooting a basketball, but also to mental activities. For example, we can say “communication skills” or “mathematical skills” etc. And the distinction between the two types of skills I mentioned in the original question is applicable for mental activities as well.

Let me give an example of what I believe is called a spelling skill. For most of the words we use we don’t have to think about how to spell them, because we read or wrote them too often. But in some cases we have to think about the correct spelling by remembering some rules or etymology of a particular word. Here, again, we can distinguish two kinds of skills: first is the one I called “navyk”, and the second one is “umeniye”.

This example illustrates that the notion of muscle memory, which has been offered, doesn’t really fit the concept I’m trying to find a word for.

  • Hi, that's an interesting question. You might want to edit to include an example sentence - that's a requirement for the single-word-requests tag. Also if you show what research you've done, in particular saying what English words you've considered and rejected (and why), you'll get better much better answers. Take a look here.
    – tmgr
    Commented Oct 4, 2018 at 9:41
  • 1
    @tmgr Thanks for the advice, I'll try to edit the question shortly
    – David
    Commented Oct 4, 2018 at 9:44
  • The word "aptitude" in the second definition fits the "instinctive" level of the skill you describe. However, like many other words in English, it can refer to BOTH inherent skill and learned skill. I know... maybe you can describe the skill to specify which you mean.
    – user22542
    Commented Oct 4, 2018 at 10:23
  • There is the English word "proclivity" that might truly answer the question. Can you reword the question? It looks like you want a word to distinguish "mechanical/learned skill vs. natural/intrinsic skill".
    – user22542
    Commented Oct 4, 2018 at 10:33
  • 1
    @user22542 checked both, "aptitude" and "proclivity", in the Merriam-Webster dictionary. Both words are defined as inclination. Unfortunately, it is not what I'm looking for due to a reason mentioned in the Update of my original question. Also, the distinction "mechanical/learned skill vs. natural/intrinsic skill" is not essential. As you can see in the example of the basketball student, both skills are learned, but at some point the skill becomes so good (due to the great number of repetitions) that the student doesn't have to consciously control his/her body movements.
    – David
    Commented Oct 4, 2018 at 11:01

5 Answers 5


Muscle memory

From Oxford living dictionaries:

The ability to reproduce a particular movement without conscious thought, acquired as a result of frequent repetition of that movement.

I think it fits your example quite well: the kid has a muscle memory of how to shoot the basketball. Although this phrase is largely specific to physical, it can also be used idiomatically for mental skills.

  • Muscle memory isn't really what I'm looking for. Of course a muscle memory is something that is necessary for the type of skill I’m talking about when we considering physical activities (like in the basketball example). However, there are other types of activities, namely mental activities. For example, we can say “communication skills” or “mathematical skills” etc. and the distinction between the two types of skills I mentioned in the original question is applicable for mental activities as well. Let me give more thorough explanation in another update of my question.
    – David
    Commented Oct 12, 2018 at 7:04

An idiom to describe your example is second nature. https://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/english/second-nature

When an athlete never has to learn because the skill is inborn, he is called "a natural".

"Second nature" says the skill has become so familiar through repetition that it can be done without thinking.

This is a broader term than "muscle memory" since it is not just about physicality, but can be used for any behavior or thought process that can be performed while the mind is disassociating (or detached) from the task, such as driving a car.

  • Yes, "second nature" seems quite accurate. The only problem is that it IS an idiom. And I'm looking for a scientific term. Сome to think of it, my question belonfgs to the domain of psychology rather than linguistics.
    – David
    Commented Oct 12, 2018 at 7:42

There are a couple of terms I can think of. One is "automaticity". Another term which is a more technical one used in psychology, "procedural memory".

Automaticity is the ability to do things without occupying the mind with the low-level details required, allowing it to become an automatic response pattern or habit. It is usually the result of learning, repetition, and practice.

Procedural memory is quite similar:

Procedural memories are accessed and used without the need for conscious control or attention.

Procedural memory is created through procedural learning or, repeating a complex activity over and over again until all of the relevant neural systems work together to automatically produce the activity.
Procedural memory

An example that both these terms encompass is the natural, automatic and unconscious behaviour when we have driven a car for a long time, as opposed to a learner who has trouble doing 5 things at once.

Procedural memory is interesting because anterograde amnesiacs may never learn what are called explicit memories, but rather commonly their procedural memory capacity is intact. In other words, you may train them how to ride a bike or skateboard every day. Every day they may forget every word you've spoken to them, but chances are their skills in these activities will improve. Usually procedural memory is exemplified with cases of motor skills, however it isn't always motor skills. A non-motor skill example is the ability to recite (non-vocally) long tracts of song lyrics or movie scripts. These things become automatised or automatic, unconscious and effortless.



A reflex or a reflex action is something that you do automatically and without thinking, as a habit or as a reaction to something.


I came across an article 'What is Skill?' by Paul Attewell. In this article he distinguishes four notions of skill as they are being used in four different sociological traditions, positivist, ethnomethodological, Weberian, and Marxist. Here is what he has to say about ethnomethodological perspective:

Ethnomethodology offers a view of human activity, and hence skill, which is completely at odds with the positivists’ assumptions about complexity, routine, and conscious analysis. At the core of this perspective is the idea that all human activity, even the most mundane, is quite complex. Things that everyone does—such as walking, crossing the road, and carrying on a conversation—are amazing accomplishments requiring a complex coordination of perception, movement, and decision, a myriad of choices, and a multitude of skills. A large part of ethnomethodological research has been devoted to showing the fine texture, the many steps and contingencies, of activities that are normally thought of as simple (Garfinkel, 1969).

Because these mundane activities are extraordinarily complicated, humans cannot attend to them consciously. On the few occasions when we do become self-conscious about the minutiae of our interactive work, this proves so distracting that we stumble or falter because we are temporarily unable to devote our full attention to those tasks that require conscious deliberation. Kusterer (1978) described bank tellers who count money most accurately when they are talking or disattending: “It is only when they stop to think about it that they miscount or lose track of where they are” (pp. 83, 87).


The skills required to carry out these activities also become invisible: They become buried within their practitioners—either psychologically in the form of habits and non-conscious information—processing or somatically in muscles and neurons (knack, deftness, and cunning). Thus many human capacities are not just a matter of reason, intellect, or knowledge but are unconscious and literally embodied.

It is my understanding that after all there are no separate words in English to distinguish these two senses of the word skill (umeniye and navyk).

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