Q: If people aren’t doing well—or feeling well—we say they’re “under par.” But shooting “under par” in golf is a positive thing, and not a negative. Any thoughts?
A: The term “par” comes from an identical word in Latin that means “equality” or “that which is equal.” (Think of “parity.”)
When it was first recorded in English, in 1601, “par” was a term in economics, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
It was short for “par of exchange,” a phrase that meant “the recognized value of the currency of one country in terms of that of another.”
Later, in the early 1700s, the term “par” acquired another financial meaning: “the face value of a share or other security as distinct from its market value,” the OED says.
So “at par” meant a price at face value; “above par” meant a price above that, or at a premium; “below par” meant at a discount.
Meanwhile, “par” acquired a more general meaning: “equality of value or standing; an equal footing, a level,” in the words of the OED.
And “on a par” meant equal or on the same level.
It’s not surprising that people in the late 1700s would begin using “par” in reference to health and well-being.
If you weren’t feeling quite up to scratch, you were feeling “under par,” and vice versa.
The OED’s first citation for this use of the word comes from a letter written in 1776 by Lady Hester Newdigate: “As to my Spirits they are rather above than below par.”
And since we never pass up a chance to quote P. G. Wodehouse, here’s a citation from his novel Quick Service (1940):
“Mrs. Chavender’s Pekinese, Patricia, had woken up that morning a little below par, and Sally was driving her and it to the veterinary surgeon in Lewe.”
(The OED replaced the Pekinese’s name with an ellipsis, but we think that anyone who’d drop “Patricia” must be dotty.)
When did golf enter the picture?
The term “par” was first used in the late 1880s to mean “the number of strokes which a scratch player should need for a hole or for a course,” the OED says.
The word “par” was also used as a noun meaning “a score of this number of stokes at a hole.”
Here’s the OED’s first recorded golfing use, from W. Simpson’s Art of Golf (1887): “He easily recalls how often he has done each hole in par figures.”
A more recent citation comes from the Times of London in 2000: “Westwood’s closing 71 took him to a total of 270, 14 under par.”
So when we say we’re feeling “a bit under par,” we’re not borrowing a golfing term. It was golfers who borrowed the word from common usage.
But we are using golf terminology when we say, “That’s par for the course.”
This figurative usage was first recorded in the 1940s, according to published references in the OED.
The dictionary’s earliest citation is from short story in a 1947 issue of The Partisan Review:
“Nancy had married and moved to San Francisco and had had three children immediately. ‘Par for the course,’ said Seymour to Jasper.”
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