Linguist, lexicographer, writer, editor, broadcaster

“Benchmark”: A Political Catchphrase, Coming In Off the Bench

In A Political Catchphrase, Coming In Off the Bench, Sridhar Pappu of the Washington Post quotes me and Peter Sokolowski of Merriam-Webster about the word “benchmark.” I tried to dissuade Mr. Pappu from writing that the word “benchmark” is newly popular in politics—even going so far as to suggest that he was suffering from the recency illusion—but I was not entirely successful.

Benchmark, in its original sense, is “a surveyor’s mark cut in a wall, pillar, or building and used as a reference point in measuring altitudes,” according to the New Oxford American Dictionary.

As Peter mentions in the article, the non-surveying use of “benchmark,” “a standard or point of reference against which things may be compared or assessed” (also NOAD), was sufficiently common that Merriam-Webster included it Webster’s New International Dictionary, Second Edition, in 1934.

Though there are no doubt earlier examples to be found, the earliest use I find of the word in a political context is from 1944, in an editorial opinion about the Federal Trade Commission and private ownership of power plants. However, even by 1949 this non-surveying use of “benchmark” was still uncommon enough that I see the word “scare-quoted” in a discussion of the census.

By the end of the 1950s, the word is significantly visible in a generalized sense in a variety of industries. The people—including politicians—that would use the word “benchmark” are those who would bring in systems of management, of measurement, and of accountability—the kinds of things found in increasingly complex fields and industries such as demography (mostly in the form of the census), military, education, communications, and technology. It repeatedly and consistently appears in stories concerning politics and government.

My comment about “gentleman politicians” was meant to suggest that this term and jargon like it were being used by professional politicians who specialize in business management and public policy.

By 1969, the word “benchmark” was common enough to mean “a system or method of measurement” that Seagram’s launched a brand called “Benchmark Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey.” One 1970 advertisement said:

Measure your Bourbon against it. The meaning of the word Benchmark: “that which others are measured against.” Take us up on our challenge—and measure your Bourbon against Benchmark.

Throughout the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, the word was stock jargon for businesspeople and politicians throughout the English-speaking world. It did not seem to drop out of favor.

Which leads us to the 2000s: there’s no evidence that the word is any more popular among politicians now than it has been throughout the last few decades.

In fairness to Mr. Pappu, I should point out that I did not give him all of this information, as I’ve only just wrapped up my digging on the term; however, I used publicly available dictionaries and databases to do it, same as he could have done.

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Grant Barrett