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In statistics (and some other fields, such as medicine, I believe), the best available benchmark under reasonable conditions is sometimes referred to as "the gold standard". This phrase is also used colloquially to mean an ideal against which others are compared - google gives its definition as "the best, most reliable, or most prestigious thing of its type".

I can think of two plausible origins of this phrase. "The gold standard" seems at first to mean the standard (for comparison) that is golden (i.e. the best). But I could also see it having emerged from analogy to the literal gold standard, i.e., "the system by which the value of a currency was defined in terms of gold, for which the currency could be exchanged".

What is the true origin of this phrase?

The wikipedia article clearly believes it's the former:

The phrase is therefore ambiguous and its meaning should be deduced from the context in which it appears. Part of the ambiguity stems from its usage in economics, where "gold" does not imply "best" but is merely one of many possible standards.

But there are no sources for this interpretation cited, and not even any discussion on the talk page about it, so I'm not sure I can take this as more than just one person's opinion.

EDIT: I can (and have) come up with plausible justifications for both interpretations. I'm asking this question in the hopes of a more definitive resolution to the question, so I'd prefer (if possible) answers that could shed some light on the history or origin of the phrase being used as described, or offer sources that do the same.

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    It would take significant contrary evidence to convince me the term does not derive from the practice of "backing" paper money with gold, and, before that, basing the value of coins on their gold content, or the amount of gold they could be exchanged for through the corresponding nation's treasury. After all, the term "standard" figures literally into this practice. Of course it doesn't hurt that gold is shiny and doesn't tarnish, but that's just gilding the lily. – Hot Licks Jan 13 '16 at 1:48
  • @HotLicks The main reason I'm on here looking for a definitive conclusion, though, is that every time I've heard the phrase (used as described, rather than referencing economics) spoken out loud, the way the words were emphasized didn't match that interpretation. "Gold standard" gets pronounced with the same emphasis pattern as "New Jersey" whereas people speaking about the economic policy emphasize it like "pork chop". – Empiromancer Jan 13 '16 at 1:58
  • That's odd, I use the same emphasis pattern for both "New Jersey" and "pork chop". (But understand that, while the gold standard was a financial reality 100 years ago, it is no longer, in most of the world -- there are few people left in the US who are old enough to remember the gold standard,eg. So the term has slipped from being a literal reference to being figurative.) – Hot Licks Jan 13 '16 at 2:08
  • @HotLicks Wait, so.... do you pronounce the state "New Jersey" (as if you were about to compare it to "Old Jersey") or do you pronounce the food "pork chop"? (Stresses obviously very exaggerated)? – Empiromancer Jan 13 '16 at 2:14
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    Having lived there once, I pronounce "New Jersey" as little as possible. – Hot Licks Jan 13 '16 at 2:18
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I think it refers to the economic monetary concept of "gold standard" which, being based on physical gold was considered reliable and popular given the supposed advantages that gold has over other commodities. Since the phrase "gold standard" refers to the actual exchange of a currency for gold, guaranteeing its value, any "gold standard" item has thus been used to refer to a benchmark of the highest quality.

  • A gold standard is a monetary system in which the standard economic unit of account is based on a fixed quantity of gold. Three types can be distinguished: specie, exchange, and bullion.

  • Gold was a preferred form of money due to its rarity, durability, divisibility, fungibility and ease of identification,often in conjunction with silver. Silver was typically the main circulating medium, with gold as the monetary reserve.

(Wikipedia)

  • Is there a reference that might indicate that the phrase refers to the (monetary) gold standard? – Empiromancer Jan 12 '16 at 23:09
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    @user164385 - I think it is implicit in its definition. See here for instance: dictionary.cambridge.org/it/dizionario/inglese/gold-standard – user66974 Jan 12 '16 at 23:16
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    The term "gold standard" in its monetary sense is used since the end of the 18th century: many publications on economic either criticize or prize the concept. As Josh61, I believe that "gold standard" was later used figuratively to refer to a high standard of quality. – Graffito Jan 12 '16 at 23:18
  • @Josh61 I'm not sure I read that the same way - sure, the phrase is the same (and thus a dictionary definition ought to provide both commonly use definitions) but nowhere does it say the origin is the same. While convergent linguistic evolution is probably quite rare, surely it's not completely unheard of? – Empiromancer Jan 13 '16 at 1:49
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    @user164385 - the fact that the expression was originally used only to refer to a monetary system and no other common usage followed, apart from the "benchmark" one, supports the used that the second meaning is derived from the original one. Plus the "gold" reference is a most effective way to refer to something "unique and valuable" , something you should use as a valid parameter. Why do you think that this may not be the case? – user66974 Jan 13 '16 at 15:46
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Since I wasn't quite convinced by what I'd seen so far, I decided to do some more digging. This goes down through multiple layers of research:

Pronunciation

There are two ways to place emphasis on the words "gold standard", and each implicitly indicates a subtly different meaning. When people talk about the economic policy, they usually say "the gold standard" (emphasis mine for exaggeration), i.e. "the standard of [using] gold". But when I hear people use the phrase in a medical/scientific context, I've invariably heard them stress it as "the gold standard", i.e., "the golden standard" (and I work with statisticians and public health professionals, so I hear that phrase used a lot). It's the difference between saying "the gold egg" to mean an egg that somehow hatches gold, vs an egg made out of gold - the difference gets coded into how you say it.

So there's clearly (to me, at least) an implicit consensus among the people using the phrase that (when used in a scientific context) they're talking about a golden standard. But this doesn't rule out the possibility that "gold[en] standard" is an egg corn. People may well have gotten confused as to the origin of the phrase, since (being used largely in technical papers and scientific publications) most people are going to first see this phrase written down rather than spoken.

Dictionary references

Many standard dictionaries, such as Collins' English dictionary, define the phrase in two ways - the economic way, and the scientific way - side-by-side. It's not unreasonable to think that this suggests the one usage led to the other. But it's not ironclad either: convergent evolution of language is not unheard of.

Technical references

This site aggregates definitions from a variety of medical dictionaries. Two entries stand out as interesting. First, the Farlex Partner Medical dictionary notes that

The term criterion standard is preferred in medical writing.

I read this as saying that "gold" is an informal and jargonistic way of saying "best" standard, and they prefer a more technical (but gramatically equivalent) phrasing. Stronger evidence comes from the entry in Saunders Comprehensive Veternary Dictionary, which defines it as

The ultimate standard to which all endeavors aspire.

Once again, this suggests that "gold" is a stand-in for "best" or "ultimate" rather than referring (directly, at least) to the metal.

History of the phrase

Fortunately, back in 2005 there was an article published in the British Medical Journal trying to answer exactly this question. There are several highlights. First, it notes that the common usage does indeed assume "gold" meaning best:

“Gold standard” is the popular term to describe this test; but “golden standard” is sometimes used as well. In fact, almost all medical publications in Dutch use the term “gouden standaard” which is a translation of “golden standard.”

The author argues that this is a mistake:

Inspired by the Olympic Games, where the best athlete wins the gold medal, people who use “golden standard” think the term denotes the best standard in the world. Not bronze, not silver, but gold. Of course, this is incorrect.

In addition to quoting a paper from 1992 that compares its usage in medical science to the old economic gold standard (which suggests that at least some professionals who use the term think of it as relating to monetary policy), he also traces its origin in medical science. It first appeared in reference to "set[ting] a standard for the use of gold salts in patients with rheaumatoid arthritis", and its first appearance of the phrase in its modern (scientific) usage is a paper written in 1979 entitled "In search of the gold standard for compliance measurement".

Case closed, right?

Original appearance of phrase

Most of the 1979 journal article is behind a paywall, but fortunately the first page already contains the author's first use of "gold standard" (emphasis mine):

While other methodological problems are involved, these four highlight the absence of a real gold standard for compliance. The ideal standard would be...

Once again, we see the usage of "gold standard" interchangably with "ideal standard". While this muddies the waters a little, the other appearances of "gold standard" in that article do seem to line up with it being a reference to the gold standard for currency. And attempting to read any further into this article is likely fruitless.

Conclusion

The BMJ article comes down pretty hard on the side of "the gold standard"'s origin being a reference to monetary policy - and the sources it cites, for the most part, support that interpretation. But it's also clear that the amgiguous usage - and the possibility for inerpretting the egg corn of "golden standard" from it - has been present from the start. It's not hard to imagine that the alternate interpretation has existed almost as long as "the gold standard" has been used in medical science. I suppose there's no way to really definitively settle the question short of calling up Peter Rudd and asking him what he meant in that original article, but barring that it seems like the BMJ article at least brings us closer to understanding the history of the phrase.

  • Keep in mind that the modern Olympic games, as we know them, only go back to 1896, whereas the "modern" monetary "gold standard", in one form or another, goes back at least 100 years prior to that. (And I wonder if anyone besides you can detect the pronunciation differences you describe.) – Hot Licks Jan 14 '16 at 19:22
  • @HotLicks I'm not really trying to argue this is actually the origin of the phrase - the BMJ article has several sources that provide decent evidence to the contrary. The article is proposing the olympics as an explanation for why everyone (including myself, at the point when I asked this question) gets it wrong. – Empiromancer Jan 14 '16 at 19:42
  • I guess I don't see that "everyone" gets it wrong. I think the preponderance of arguments were on the side of the monetary origin. – Hot Licks Jan 14 '16 at 19:46

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