My understanding is that the "par" portion of "subpar" comes from the sport of golf, as in the phrase "par for the course". However if this is the case, then the construction of the word doesn't seem to make sense. In golf, the farther below (i.e., sub) the par you are, the better you've done and the better your score is. Likewise, the farther above you are, the worse you've done.

Is there a legitimate etymological reason for this word's construction in relation to its meaning?

Note that I saw this question, but it's completely different and unrelated.

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    Jeff, I don't see how the question is related to the English Language, assumed that golf jargon has nothing to do with the correct meaning and usage of the English words.
    – user19148
    Aug 26, 2013 at 17:29
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    @Carlo_R. If the root of the word is derived from "golf jargon" (which is itself part of the English language), then it does relate to the meaning/etymology of this legitimate English word.
    – asteri
    Aug 26, 2013 at 17:31
  • Jeff, no, I disagree. In reference to the apparent inversion of the meaning of that word, as it is used in golf jargon, your intent is to infer a general rule in order to have that rule valid, which is not and not possible, in common speeck, -1.
    – user19148
    Aug 26, 2013 at 17:45
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    Golf is abnormal in having higher scores be worse; the norm in English (and many other languages) is to consider larger/higher things to be better (the famous GOOD IS UP conceptual metaphor schema). I suspect a golfer who was having an off day might describe his or her scores as "subpar" even though they are numerically higher than normal.
    – zwol
    Aug 26, 2013 at 21:31

3 Answers 3


Dictionary.com defines par as:

an average, usual, or normal amount, degree, quality, condition, standard, or the like: above par; to feel below par.

In this case I don't believe that "subpar" actually derives from golf at all - "subpar" and the golf "par" both derive from the general definition of the word.

  • Nice point. I never realized "par" had a meaning outside of golf. Makes sense.
    – asteri
    Aug 26, 2013 at 17:32
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    +1. Indeed, it doesn't derive from golf; according to the Online Etymology Dictionary: "Meaning 'average or usual amount' is first attested 1767. Golf usage is first attested 1898." [link]
    – ruakh
    Aug 27, 2013 at 5:22
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    The golf usage is arguably wrong. "Par" means "expected", but to hit par on the links requires near-perfect play. Aug 27, 2013 at 22:38

Though urban dictionary provides definition of subpar as 1) not measuring up to traditional standards of performance, value, or production. 2) below par in a hole, round, or game of golf, OED defines subpar simply as “used to describe something that is below average, or below what is expected,” as well as CED’s blunt definition, “below an average level,” period, no mention of golf.

The following examples I’ve picked up from newspapers and literature for my English vocabulary / usage collection purpose show even in sports, usage of subpar goes much beyond golf.

(1)A lower standard than customary or traditionally accepted norms, but not entirely unacceptable. For example, a computer's speed may be subpar, indicating that it is running slow relative to other computers, but this does not necessarily mean it is broken or unusable.

(2) It's exactly the kind of game the Washington Redskins have been mostly unable to win over the past dozen years. Nobody ran the ball with any authority. Donovan McNabb had, for him, a very sub-par passing night. But they did play defense and let the other guy make stupid mistakes.

(3) Cowboys signal caller, Tonny Romo had a sub-par free season, throwing one touch-down and two interceptions, and he was sacked five times.

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    Yeah, I know what the word means. That was the question. I thought that the root of the word ("par") came from golf, which, if it had been true, would have meant that the actual meaning of "subpar" made no sense. As @EvanM pointed out, though, there's likely no etymological relation between the two except that they share a common root.
    – asteri
    Aug 29, 2013 at 1:11
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    “Below an average level” applies both to golf and non-golf uses; the difference is that for golf, below average is good thing (you want to take the minimum number of strokes to get the ball in the hole), whereas in most other cases, it's a bad thing (since a higher number typically equates to bigger/stronger/faster, etc). Aug 29, 2013 at 9:11

It makes sense if the phrase "subpar" refers to a standard ("par"), not a specific number. So subpar is "below the standard" and not below some number set as a standard. This is true in any case, whether "par" is construed as a golf term or it's original meaning (something like "equal").

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