Know-how

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Know-how

Post by Archived Topic » Thu Jan 03, 2002 7:29 pm

Here's one which has annoyed me for years now. The German language has taken over many English terms and often puts a slightly different slant on them. One of these is, in my opinion, "know-how". It is very widely used as being synonymous (in all nuances) with "expertise". I very often feel constrained to use "expertise" or a different term when translating a German text containing the term "Know-How", and yet have never successfully put my finger on why.

I feel that "know-how" in English is subtly different from "expertise". "Know-how" is often the sum total of little snippets of knowledge that a person hugely experienced in a trade or profession picks up along the way (... it's a lot easier to get at the brake caliper bolt from the top rather than the bottom on a 1958 Triumph, etc.). Rather more "tricks of the trade" than sheer expertise.

Webster (Third New International) has this to say on "know-how", which seems at least partly to back up my feeling:
"... accumulated practical skill or expertness ..."

I sense that the term has become more popular over the past 15 years or so, particularly in the U.S. and is often also used in professional contexts (software engineering, business management), but I still feel that it has a slightly different shade of meaning from "expertise".

Perhaps it's summed up by the fact that I wouldn't necessarily see a statement such as "we have the expertise and know-how to get the job done" as being tautologous, but rather giving two different slants on our abilities.

I'd appreciate anybody else's take on this.
Submitted by Phil White (Munich - Germany)
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Know-how

Post by Archived Reply » Thu Jan 03, 2002 7:44 pm

Phil, I also feel that there is a nuance of difference although according to most dictionaries they look like synonyms. Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary defines them as follows:

KNOW-HOW: Practical knowledge of how to do or accomplish something with smoothness and efficiency : ability to get something done with a minimum of wasted effort : accumulated practical skill or expertness. <business know-how>, <needed the know-how of a good carpenter>, <salesmanship know-how>, <the know-how involved in producing a play>, <developed his bowling know-how>; especially : technical knowledge, ability, skill, or expertness of this sort. <the company needed to use all its ingenuity and know-how to succeed in laying the oil lines>.

EXPERTISE: Specialized skill or technical knowledge : expertness in a particular field : KNOW-HOW. <“the mental commodity most in demand will be practical wisdom rather than specialized expertise”>, “his bravery, his sure judgment in the most difficult situations, his expertise in the science of war”>

The ‘dictionary’ meanings of “know-how” (1838) and ‘expertise (1868) look very similar. However, I feel that in practical usage there is a difference in that ‘know-how’ is more ‘folksy’ ‘down-home’ and informal than ‘expertise’ and it also has a certain air of go-in-there-with-a-wrench-and-get-the-job-done attitude, whereas expertise has a more ‘refined’ air. I don’t think it would normally be said that Shakespeare had great know-how in crafting his words or that an ambassador to the U.N. was selected for his know-how in foreign affairs, or that a brain surgeon has great know-how in vascular surgery.

Words such as ‘know-how,’ ‘can-do’ (~1900), ‘gung-ho’ (1942), ‘go-getter’ (1921), ‘stick-to-it-ive’ (~1865), ‘up-front’ (1967 – honest), bottom-line (1967) are all words which one would suspect went from slang to semirespectable (whether they actually did or not), whereas ‘expertise’ feels like it has been there all the time.

(Oxford English Dictionary, Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary, Random House Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary)

Ken – September 4, 2004



Reply from Ken Greenwald (Fort Collins, CO - U.S.A.)
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Know-how

Post by Archived Reply » Thu Jan 03, 2002 7:58 pm

Let's not forget 'savoir-faire' either, which is to human relations and social situations what 'know-how' is to a practical trade.
Reply from Erik Kowal ( - England)
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Know-how

Post by Archived Reply » Thu Jan 03, 2002 8:13 pm

Thanks, Ken.
I use a rack of online, CD and treeware dictionaries (several versions of Webster, Random House and the OED), but there comes a point with all of them where native intuition of real usage on the streets goes just that little further. Sadly, after 20 years away from the homeland, I'm not always confident that I've kept up to date.
Reply from Phil White (Munich - Germany)
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Post by Archived Reply » Thu Jan 03, 2002 8:27 pm

Phil, I don't suppose you are in a position to secure a UK-based secondment or take a long holiday in Britain? Either would go quite a long way to sharpening your feel for idioms and current usages.
Reply from Erik Kowal ( - England)
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Post by Archived Reply » Thu Jan 03, 2002 8:41 pm

Ken,
Chance would be a fine thing. I run my own small company here. A short holiday (6 days!!) is all I've managed in the past 5 years and then I got flooded out! I do my best with bbc.co.uk and CNN on the TV along with all sorts of online news and magazine material. Can't imagine how we survived without the Web. It was only during my recent doomed holiday that I heard "rolling roadworks" on a traffic bulletin. I've known the German equivalent for years, but often wondered what we say. The difficulty is that to move back to the UK would be to lose my edge in German. Swings and roundabouts.
Besides, what are you guys here for if not to help the language-deprived?
Phil W.
Reply from Phil White (Munich - Germany)
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Know-how

Post by Archived Reply » Thu Jan 03, 2002 8:56 pm

I hear you, Phil.

"Ken"
Reply from Erik Kowal ( - England)
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