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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

raise the bar

(1990’s | businese (faux-athletese) | “raise standards,” “one-up” “outdo (oneself)” “make progress”)

I was unsure whether this expression would qualify as post-1980, but its emergence traces a distinct path across the last few decades: first unmistakable sighting in LexisNexis, 1985 (Governor Thomas Kean of New Jersey), gradual rise for the next ten years, then boom! That path is not in the least atypical. Picked up first by politicians and executives, it got a boost around 1990 from the newly influential personal computer industry. By 2000, it had raised the roof. I’m not sure when I first encountered it, but I remember using it as if old hat shortly after 2000. Before 1995, the phrase was normally followed by a few words of amplification. So an executive might bloviate about raising the bar of excellence. Or a manager might blather on about raising the bar for (or “of,” or “on”) customer service, for example. But within a few years it could be uttered as easily by itself. Like most new expressions, it didn’t settle right away into its most compact form. It sounds much more natural than it did in 1995 to hear it without appendages, but it still takes them readily.

It’s suspiciously obvious, but I’m still inclined to think the expression descends from track and field, as in the high jump or pole vault. In competition, athletes raise the bar to test themselves and make it harder for everyone else; “raising the bar” means outstripping the competition, and that is its general implication today when used as a set phrase. It can be used neutrally to mean “improve one’s performance,” but it’s far more likely to come at someone else’s expense. Even when educators talk about improving test scores (or, heaven forbid, learning) and they urge students and teachers to raise the bar — meaning everyone should do better rather than some getting ahead by pushing others down — the competition is students in other countries. (For reasons unclear to me, educators are oddly fond of this phrase. One expects businessmen and public officials to resort early and often to athletic expressions, but not the educational profession.)

The phrase also has a legal meaning, something like “activate or invoke a prohibition,” as in “raise the bar of estoppel” (don’t ask me to explain what that means). In order to take the Fifth, you have to demonstrate that you have likely engaged in some kind of criminal behavior; you can’t just pretend that any old embarrassing answer is incriminating. But once you’ve demonstrated that, you can “raise the bar” against testifying against yourself. Fascinating, but probably not the origin of today’s expression. Another sport, weightlifting, yields a more likely influence: “raise the bar” just means “lift the barbell.” The higher you raise the bar, the better your score. So that could have been a factor in the genesis of the phrase.

From recent headlines: amazon.com asks certain employees to act as “bar raisers,” who help screen job candidates and work with management to determine who should be hired. “Bar raiser” turns up sporadically in LexisNexis, with Amazon providing a recent boost. It may start cropping up more often, in which case we’ll hear “that’s a real bar-raiser” about as often as “that really raises the bar.” Amish people in the audience will be excused for being confused. A campaign to pressure Hershey to use fair-trade chocolate is called “Raise the Bar.” Lots of organizations use the name, actually. “Raise the bar” became natural very quickly, back there in the nineties, and we’ve adopted it with little fuss or hand-wringing, even those of us who notice new expressions as a matter of crabbed habit.

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