My husband calls me in the mornings, sometimes, after he’s dropped off his younger daughter at school and he’s driving to his workplace. Today, he included a tidbit that had occurred to him about the terms “above par” and “below par,” and how they’re opposite in golf and elsewhere. I see a lot of discussion on “ask us” websites (Yahoo, Quora, Reddit, and so on), but I didn’t keep digging into search results to see if any language blogs had addressed it.
I’ll address it.
First off, here’s what Merriam-Webster has to say about the meaning and etymology. Notice that the first simple definition is the one used in golf, and the second has to do with stock values.
In the game of golf, each hole is assigned a number of strokes as “par.” That’s the average number of strokes a player is expected to need to get from the tee to the hole. (I don’t play golf; can you tell?) If a player uses more strokes than par, that’s “bad.” If a player uses fewer strokes, that’s “good.” If the player’s control and strength and all the rest are expert, we expect the player to come in “below par.” And that’s good. If they play like I do, they’ll be “above par” and that’s bad. (I know I’m bad. I despise golf.)
However, in business and elsewhere the meanings are opposite. As you can see from the simple definition, if a stock is valued “below par,” it has lost value since it was issued. A value “above par” is desirable, because it’s worth more than at the time of issuance. Common usage extends this to many venues. Students’ performance is said to be “above par” if they’re doing well (scoring above average), and “below par” if they’re doing badly (scoring below average). The same applies to employees, to vehicles, to many things. The business/stock sense reaches far beyond pieces of paper with assigned monetary value.
If you keep in mind that “par” is average, the opposite meanings might be less confusing. In golf, you want to use as few strokes as possible to get from 1 to 18 (the standard number of holes on a course). You want to be below par. In everything else, you want to be above average.