Tout le monde has commented on Brian Flores's racial discrimination suit against the National Football League and its teams, but the Grammar Curmudgeon has yet to weigh in. I'm disturbed by the initial response from the New York Giants, one of three teams named in the complaint: "We hired the coach we thought was most qualified."
To one who worries about the debasement of the language, this usage of "qualified" is near meaningless dribble. When we understand why, we'll have a richer sense of the problem the lawsuit seeks to illuminate.
We hear the phrasing all the time: The president should pick the most qualified person for the Supreme Court. Colleges should admit the most qualified students. And — as the Giants imply — an employer should hire the most qualified applicant.
Used this way, "most qualified" implies the outcome of an objective process of selection. The employer made an ordinal ranking according to clear criteria, and offered the job to the person who finished first. But not only is this hardly ever true; it also represents a misunderstanding of what it means to possess a qualification.
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.
Thus the disappointed office seeker who wrote to President Lincoln in 1863, regretting that he had been "vain enough to believe I was qualified" for the unnamed post, was making no claim to have been the best person for the job; he suggested only that he would have been capable of doing the job.
Similarly, in the wake of the Civil War, many federal office seekers were rejected as "not qualified" — but the term did not imply that they were incapable of doing the job. The qualification they hadn't met was taking an oath of loyalty to the Union.
Google's Ngram Viewer tells us that the word "most" followed by "qualified" was all but unknown during the 19th century. The term became popular only in the 1960s, when scientistic theories of employment held their greatest sway. Maybe that lingering scientism explains why we pretend to objective rankings even when none exist.
Okay, fine. What does all this grammaring mean for Flores's lawsuit? Because hiring a football coach isn't science.
Yes, there are pertinent qualifications in the sense of a baseline — relevant experience, for instance — but the pool of candidates possessing these is large. In the end, the decision tends to come down to what the sportswriters like to call the intangibles:
This potential coach will be good in the locker room, that one exudes confidence.
Yet such criteria as these are murky. Some employers set up clear standards: "We'll hire whoever performs best on the test." If we might argue about the test, at least we know what's meant when a candidate is called "most qualified."
But when murky criteria form the basis for choice, to refer to any candidate as "most qualified" is, literally, meaningless. What we're really doing is making a choice based on instinct.
I respect instinct. Even in employment, a gut feeling ("I just felt A was a better fit than B") can now and then provide sufficient justification
But a justification of that kind has nothing whatever to do with who's "most qualified."
And there's a larger problem: The less concrete the criteria, the greater the chance that instincts we believe are guiding us faithfully will mask biases of which we ourselves are unaware. Moreover, we've long understood that civil rights laws are harder to apply when employers make choices according to murky criteria — especially for jobs near the top. A lawsuit challenging an employment decision based on gut instinct faces a nearly insuperable burden.
All of this explains why it's easier to see what Flores is getting at when we understand what "qualified" really means. Lots of candidates, many of them not white, will meet the baseline. In choosing among them, teams more often than not go with the gut.
Going with the gut isn't evil in itself; but we shouldn't for a moment let those who practice it get away with saying, as the Giants did, that they've chosen the "most qualified" coach.
Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.
Disclaimer: This article first appeared in Bloomberg, and is published by special syndication arrangement.