What's the meaning of the phrase 'Below par'?
Beneath the normal or expected condition or standard of something. It is frequently used in relation to a person's health or sense of well-being.
What's the origin of the phrase 'Below par'?
The origins of the expression 'below par' are to be found in the financial exchanges of the early 18th century.
The word 'par' doesn't usually exist on its own - it is mainly used with 'under', 'below', 'above' or some other qualifier. To understand 'below par' and its synonym 'under par' we first need to know what 'par' means. This meaning isn't, as is often thought, 'average'. 'Par' is short for 'par of exchange' which is the name for the recognised value of the currency of one country in terms of that of another - what we now call the 'rate of exchange'.
When 'below par', 'under par' and 'above par' were first used it was in relation to the movement of currency values in the 1720s. For example, this piece from the Scottish newspaper The Caledonian Mercury, 30th June 1720:
When the Examination of the Accounts of the Bank is finished, Bank Notes are still between 25 and 30 per Cent, under Par.
The same newspaper, on 25th August 1720, also referred to 'below par' in this item about the value of insurance bonds:
Several other towns, are hammering out new Companies of Insurance; but the number begins to clog the market, and some are already fallen below par.
Since that time the expressions 'below par' and 'under par' have taken on a more general meaning of 'below the average; below what is normally expected'. The terms are frequently applied to a person's health - when feeling less fit and healthy than normal we might say that we are 'below par'.
The most common use of 'par' in modern English is as a reference to someone's score in golf. In that context 'par' is the average or expected number of shots required on a particular hole or for an entire round.
It is an oddity of language that, in golf, to be 'under par' is to be above par. That is, as the aim is to hit as few shots as possible, a player is doing well if playing under par.