Jargon Genesis: Benchmark

Have you ever benchmarked your product against competitors to determine your place in the market? Have you stopped to think where “benchmark” came from? Well, you have surveyors to thank for this week’s business jargon!

The Online Etymology Dictionary states that the literal use of “benchmark” dates back to 1838, and the figurative use from 1884, but there are no sources for those dates. Despite the uncertainty around the dates, the original use of the term is fairly certain.

In the 19th century, surveyors, seeking to measure the earth, determine property boundaries, etc.,  would first choose a point of known elevation. They would often mark this point by cutting into a lasting material, like stone. This would act as a reference point for measuring the elevation of an area.

Surveyors would insert an angle iron into the horizontal mark, creating a bench on which the leveling staff was rested. Thus, they created a bench mark, or benchmark, as we spell the word in a figurative context. Through the years, this term found its way into the vernacular of anyone seeking a standard by which something is evaluated or measured. So next time you run across a surveyor at a construction site, just roll down your window and shout out a thank you for this stolen term that has become integral to business vocabulary.