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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

best practices

(1990’s | businese (banking?) | “proper procedure,” “agreed-upon standard”)

Many of the terms I’ve covered in this blog are genuine arrivistes on the vocabulary scene — expressions that were unknown, or expressions already in use that have picked up startling new meaning(s) since 1980 or so. What interests me about “best practices” is that its metamorphosis has been much more subtle; it has undergone a micro-evolution that still has resulted in a significant change. There’s not much in the way of semantic or grammatical fireworks here, but I’ll try to sketch it out. (Actually, there is one grammatical oddity: I can’t quite figure out whether “best practices” is singular or plural. It sounds plural but feels singular.)

The phrase “the best practice” means simply “the preferred method,” and has been so used for a long time. It refers to a way to get the job done as quickly and completely as possible. It might be plural, but was more often singular and applied in a particular situation or field. Here’s an example from the Washington Post (July 19, 1981): “When you water tomatoes, the best practice is to moisten the soil slightly deeper than the root system.” A very specific activity in which the most effective means will be clear and consistent.

Around 1980, in the banking and industry press, you start to see “best practice(s)” either shorn of its article or sometimes even taking the indefinite article. The ever-useful American Banker provides one of each. “Examples of ‘best practices’ emerging within the organization” comes from the October 14, 1980 issue; “About 15 years ago the Bank Board decided that branching was a ‘best practice’ [for S&L’s] and permitted it by regulation” dates from October 21. These are both easily recognized instances of the way we use the term now, although the indefinite article has disappeared. In this sense, it effortlessly becomes a hyphenated adjective, as in “best-practices training.” The term didn’t become all that common even in the business press until 1990 or so. By the mid-1990’s it was picked up in computerese and its use grew dramatically; the January 2000 issue of Governing Magazine cited it as a buzzword. The phrase “best practices” — no article — now has put down roots. It was doubtless influenced by a set British phrase, “best practice,” which means the same thing.

At this point you’re entitled to ask exactly what the phrase means. It promises empirical answers, derived from experience, proven to work under a given set of conditions, which may be general enough to hold up across a wide range of circumstances. Another aspect: it is always a matter of consensus; there has to be general agreement on what “best practices” might mean within the field. If there’s no widespread agreement about how to handle a certain situation, then you can’t draw up a set of best practices for it. In certain fields, at least, “best practices” requires keeping up with technical advances; they can become obsolete fast in a field like computer programming or nanotechnology (or even just lab maintenance). Often it suggests some sort of official or government approval, or at least insurance against regulatory violations. Ideally, then, “best practices” is the current consensus on the most effective methods of accomplishing the generally acknowledged goals in a given area of endeavor.

Maybe it’s just me, but the shift from “the best practice” to “best practices,” minor though it seems, marks a significant change. “The best practice” partakes of home-and-hearth common sense: we’ve tried different strategies and learned there’s a way to proceed that will work better than the others, so that’s how we’ll do it. “Best practices” is more opaque somehow; even though they are supposed to arise from the workers and managers, they are usually drawn up far from the shop floor then handed down from above by the bosses and mandarins. “Best practices” is the descendant of the work done by much-maligned efficiency experts in the 1950’s, another example of the boss imposing ill-considered standards from above rather than allowing employees to work together to create well-founded, tested means to accomplish the organization’s goals.

Thanks again to my most prolific supplier of new expressions for suggesting this term months ago. Hang in there, Charles, I’ll get to all those other ones you’ve sent me sooner or later.

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