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For a word which comes into the conversation with such an assured air, ‘competence’ has unnervingly varied meanings. It begins by being close to ‘compete’ in the late sixteenth century, and indicated then rivalry in dignity or relative social position. Proceeding with shreds of this meaning on its way, it advanced to take in a man's (in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, invariably a man's) sufficiency of income, estate and (though the phrase doesn't arrive until the twentieth century) ‘standard of living’. In this sense, a competence placed a man in more or less comfortable circumstances, he was himself a ‘competencer’.

Through the eighteenth century, however, a new sense began to dominate over the old, which nonetheless maintains its presence today, if a bit archaically. ...

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