February 10, 2022
The word “qualified” probably comes from a French root meaning a person who has the training necessary to enter a profession. Etymology doesn’t always matter, but here the derivation points to how we’ve gone wrong. If we take the origin seriously, qualified doesn’t refer to whether one should get the position or not; it refers, rather, to whether one should be in the pool. To be qualified is simply to fall on the acceptable side of a baseline.
The Oxford English Dictionary offers two principal definitions, one of them predictive, the other attributive. The predictive sense is what we mean when we say someone is “qualified” for a task. (The surgeon is capable of performing the procedure.) The attributive sense is what we mean when we say someone is “qualified” to deliver an opinion. (We should listen to the surgeon’s advice.)
It’s the predictive sense that’s at issue here. As understood in the 19th century, to be qualified meant nothing more than having attained a given baseline — to be one of what might be many people eligible for a particular position.