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It is common to see things described as the "gold standard". It means that something is the best and is the ideal against which other things are to be compared; it cannot be superseded.

I often see it used in the medical domain, where a certain diagnostic test (e.g., the nasopharyngeal swab PCR test for infection with the Coronavirus causing COVID-19) is considered the most accurate and then other tests (e.g., cheaper or faster tests) are then evaluated against this benchmark.

The etymology is covered in another question. In short, it is derived from the historical monetary system where the value of all currencies (e.g., US dollar) is pegged to the value of gold (i.e., the metal). Thus gold was the thing against which the value of all other currencies was measured.

I don't like this term and would like to avoid using it.

First, the desired meaning is not predominant; if you search the internet for "gold standard" you will mostly get results for the monetary system, not the more general phrase.

Second, the etymology is outdated; the original meaning of the term now has the opposite connotation. The monetary gold standard was abandoned in the 1970s. Economists consider the gold standard to be a bad monetary system. Thus, if you are interested in economics and history, the term "gold standard" actually is associated with being outdated and flawed -- which is close to the opposite of the intended meaning. (Of course, many people are unaware of the original meaning of the term. But it could have a resurgance.)

(A note in response to comments: Why I want to avoid this term is relevant, but not essential, to the question. If you don't see a problem with the term, the question can be answered regardless.)

My question: Is there a better phrase to use in place of "gold standard"? For example, what term could be used in a medical study comparing a new diagnostic test against the gold standard test? I'm not aware of any good substitute that has essentially the same meaning. Here are two example sentences where I would like a replacement:

  1. A nasal swab is the gold standard for diagnosing COVID-19.
  1. The IPK served as the gold standard for all scales from 1889 until 2019.

The best substitute I can think of is "official," as in "a nasal swab is the official way to diagnose COVID-19". "Official" implies some form of uniqueness. But "official" implies the existence of some authority that gives it this designation (as opposed to scientific consensus).

A related question asks for a "perhaps humorous" alternative -- the suggestion there, "mother of all", is not appropriate here. (There is also a question about an antonym.)


In response to the answers and comments doubting the premise of this question: I personally have a negative association with the phrase "gold standard" because I know people who advocate for returning to the gold standard or its modern equivalent, Bitcoin, and have discussed the topic at length. Several prominent US politicians continue to advocate for a return to the gold standard. Thus asserting that no one will interpret the phrase in terms of monetary policy is simply not convincing.

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    In the data science community, 'gold standard' is commonly used but also 'ground truth' or just 'standard'. Sometimes simply 'labeled data' is used. While 'benchmark' might work nontechnically, it is usually reserved in technical areas for a comparison value (or the set that shows that measure) of a general quality measure like speed or accuracy. 'gold standard' is considered labeled correctly, whereas 'benchmark' is a (good) goal to be surpassed.
    – Mitch
    Jul 29 '20 at 13:20
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    Though you are asking on a general 'English language' site, you may want to ask this question on Cross Validated to get the words that that particular community uses (which is the one you care about).
    – Mitch
    Jul 29 '20 at 13:36
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    I had not considered your point that the "gold standard" itself is outdated, so some people might not read "the gold standard" in a positive way. I don't think it's widespread, but a fair point nonetheless. However, your question may be better received if you edit down the points about Google search (guesstimating Google hits is basically pointless) and the paragraph about etymology - which as others have explained, isn't quite how languages work. Jul 29 '20 at 22:33
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    @Thomas, I agree with you wholeheartedly. The person who first used it in this way was either a very bad punster or just plain old ignorant. That said, in my quest to find other words, I've not come across many that people who use "gold standard" will accept. As noted in this Wikipedia article (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gold_standard_(test)#In_medicine), the AMA Manual recommends "criterion standard" (or one edition of it did; I don't know what the current version says). When I've asked authors for a substitute, one suggested "best method." Jul 30 '20 at 16:31
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    The etymology of a word does not dictate its meaning. Your aversion to using "gold standard" is pointlessly pedantic. Obviously I can't say "no one will interpret the phrase in terms of monetary policy" because you have, but the vast, vast majority of people will not. Just like if you say "decimate" the majority of people are not going to think "killed 1/10th of", they're going to think "almost completely destroyed"
    – Kevin
    Jul 31 '20 at 15:31

10 Answers 10

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Is there a better term to use in place of “gold standard”.

Probably not - it is quite a precise term.

I have to take issue with some of your assumptions:

It is common to see things described as the "gold standard". It means that something is the best and is the ideal against which other things are to be compared.

This is accurate. Gold provides a source of absolute value and thus a comparative base line for value. This derives from the pure desirability of gold that had no practical use at all and was thus not subject to market considerations, rather it was priced at a proportion of what the sum of the economy could afford to pay.

I don't like this term.

Unfortunately, one person's subjective view is unlikely to be of influence in the evolution of the language.

First, it's confusing;

It is not confusing at all. "A gold standard for X" is that standard by which all others Xs are judged.

if you Google "gold standard" you will mostly get results for the monetary concept, not the more general phrase.

This is not an argument. Google reflects what the world is discussing at any one time. Its entries are not sorted by meaning. It is not a dictionary.

Second, the etymology is broken; the monetary gold standard was effectively abandoned in the 1970s.

This is incorrect. You have given the etymology. People understand the etymology, and even if they do not (which is unlikely), they know what meaning the phrase conveys.

I often see it in the medical domain, where a certain diagnostic test ... is considered the most accurate and then other tests ... are then evaluated against this benchmark.

Which is exactly what happens with gold and money.

Words and phrases develop over the years. Specialised concepts often form attractive parallels and thus a word or phrase will extend in its meaning as a metaphor. Metaphor is well established in English.

Of the choices above, I would suggest "paradigm" or "benchmark" as a close synonym.

OED

Paradigm: 4. A conceptual or methodological model underlying the theories and practices of a science or discipline at a particular time; (hence) a generally accepted world view.

1962 T. S. Kuhn Struct. Sci. Revol. ii. 10 ‘Normal science’ means research firmly based upon one or more past scientific achievements..that some particular scientific community acknowledges..as supplying the foundation for its further practice... I..refer to [these achievements] as ‘paradigms’.

Benchmark: 2.a. In extended use. A point of reference, esp. one from which measurements may be made; something that serves as a standard by which other similar things may be measured or evaluated;

1986 J. Cox Spirit of Gardening 70 A huckleberry pie that to this day remains the benchmark against which all subsequent pies are measured.

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    All comments deleted since it was merely a slanging match. If you like an answer, upvote it; if you don't think an answer is useful; downvote it. If there is something actually wrong with an answer, or you might be able to supply further useful information, add a comment.
    – Andrew Leach
    Jul 31 '20 at 11:07
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    This answer could be improved by deleting the first half, as it is not addressing the question.
    – Thomas
    Jul 31 '20 at 15:16
  • "Gold provides a source of absolute value." Quick quibble here that — especially since it's now a commodity — the value of gold is not actually constant; if someone finds several metric tons of pure ancient gold while excavating for a basement, the global value of gold is going to change. Aug 1 '20 at 1:01
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According to Merriam-Webster, there are two senses of gold standard. The first is the economic sense that isn't wanted.

The following is the second sense:

2 : BENCHMARK sense 1a

Rather than it just being one of several synonyms, it's specifically called out in the definition, which means that it's the closest of synonyms in meaning—at least according to this dictionary.

Looking at that sense of benchmark, we see this:

1 a : something that serves as a standard by which others may be measured or judged
       // a stock whose performance is a benchmark against which other stocks can be measured

The other related sub-sense that adds to the specific sense of testing in the question is this:

1 c : a standardized problem or test that serves as a basis for evaluation or comparison (as of computer system performance)


While other synonyms are also close, it seems as if this is the one that is the closest.


Note, however, what the Oxford (Lexico) definition says of the second sense of gold standard:

1.1 A thing of superior quality which serves as a point of reference against which other things of its type may be compared.
‘breast milk provides the gold standard by which infant feeds are measured’

Oxford's definition doesn't even reference benchmark, or any other synonym. The definition it gives is even more precise than just benchmark, since it defines it as both "a point of reference" and "of superior quality."

It doesn't really matter what its etymology is, only what its current definition and senses are.

As such, I believe it's a misconception to think that gold standard is actually the wrong word (or term) to use. Since it has a second sense, one that is far more accurate than any synonym, at least according to Oxford, I would just keep using it.

However, if not, then benchmark would still be the closest of the synonyms.

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    Thanks. I think benchmark is probably the best substitute. Although benchmarks are not unique.
    – Thomas
    Jul 29 '20 at 19:51
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    From the Oxford answer, wouldn't reference be an acceptable substitute ? Jul 30 '20 at 12:30
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    @ThePainfull: reference is far more ambiguous, though. Gold standard only has two common meanings, and they're distinct enough that practical confusion between them is rare.
    – MSalters
    Jul 30 '20 at 13:43
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    I would argue that the economic sense is very relevant --- and along with historical context, makes the phrase much easier to understand ---- since other uses are clearly a metaphor to the economic technical term. A "gold standard" once dominated the economy of likely every Western country at some point in time.
    – jpaugh
    Jul 30 '20 at 18:28
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    @Thomas : "benchmark" is a poor replacement. I suspect that the "gold" in this context of "gold standard" is more like "gold medal" rankings in competitions rather than the economic sense of "gold standard". It suggests a superior treatment, not just the bare minimum which might be true for "benchmark".
    – Joe
    Jul 31 '20 at 15:42
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Best practice (industry best practice, best practices, etc.). If you want to emphasize that you are trying to improve upon it, you could say the current best practice.

From Lexico.com:

commercial or professional procedures that are accepted or prescribed as being correct or most effective.

There are some healthcare specific uses, from a whole Wikipedia page of uses:

Research Validated Best Practice: A program, activity or strategy that has the highest degree of proven effectiveness supported by objective and comprehensive research and evaluation.

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    In medicine, under certain circumstances, the best practice may be to use a diagnostic test that is easy to apply, produces the results quickly, poses no significant risks, and is generally reliable, even if it is not perfectly reliable. The gold standard may be a test that is expensive, slow, cumbersome, and therefore used only rarely. In other words, the concept of the gold standard ignores cost-effectiveness, which is relevant to what constitutes the best practice.
    – jsw29
    Jul 29 '20 at 22:09
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Another word that could be used here is touchstone.

Touchstone: An established standard or principle by which something is judged.

Example: Until relatively recently, the Japanese car industry was the touchstone of international success. [Cambridge English dictionary]

Exemplar could also be used.

I think industry leading techniques would work well in your examples.

You could also replace *gold standard with paradigm (formal) or paragon (though I've never heard them used in medical studies).

Paradigm (noun): A model of something, or a very clear and typical example of something.

Example: Some of these educators are hoping to produce a change in the current cultural paradigm. [Cambridge English dictionary]

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    Touchstone is good but I don't think paradigm is used as an equivalent to gold-standard. Jul 29 '20 at 12:59
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    Paradigm, in its original meaning, conveys very well the idea of the standard version of something, against which all of its other versions are judged: the closer a particular version gets to the paradigm, the better it is. However, in science-related contexts, that word has, since the 1960s, been very widely used in the special sense that was given to it in Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, and that would likely interfere with any attempt to use it for another purpose.
    – jsw29
    Jul 29 '20 at 21:52
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I personally love using the word "epitome". Check out the Oxford English Dictionary's definition of it:

epitome: A person or thing that is a perfect example of a particular quality or type.

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Perhaps the word you are looking for is one of the following: "quintessential," "benchmark," or "standard."

"Quintessential" (adjective) is defined as:

Representing the most perfect or typical example of a quality or class. [Lexico]

"Benchmark" (noun) is defined as:

A standard or point of reference against which things may be compared or assessed. [Lexico]

"Standard" (noun + adjective) is defined as:

(noun) An idea or thing used as a measure, norm, or model in comparative evaluations. [Lexico]

(adjective) Used or accepted as normal or average. [Lexico]

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    The problem with standard (without gold) is that what is evaluated against the gold standard may itself be a standard. The OP needs a term that will distinguish the gold standard from the lesser, derived standards.
    – jsw29
    Jul 29 '20 at 21:56
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    @jsw29 That is a good point, but the OP asks for a word that compares "a new diagnostic test against the gold standard test." The word "new" means that the OP is not necessarily comparing standards with the golden standard, but rather things of unknown quality with the standard. I agree that "standard" isn't as good as "quintessential" and "benchmark," but it still does satisfy the requirement made by the OP.
    – user392938
    Jul 30 '20 at 1:01
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Especially in medical diagnostics, what is the gold standard today can be superseded by better methods tomorrow. As a matter of fact, that is what most people investigating better methods are actively trying to do.

Thus, I think a better term would be state of the art, which can be used as a noun or an adjective, just like "gold standard". This accurately conveys that we are discussing the current state, not some abstract ideal.

Merriam-Webster:

being or involving the latest methods, concepts, information, or styles

Lexico:

Belonging or relating to the most recent stage of technological development; having or using the latest techniques or equipment.

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  • Thanks. But the possibility of being superseded by better methods is actually not something I want people to think of. I'm looking for something more like "official".
    – Thomas
    Jul 29 '20 at 19:36
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    State of the art is a very different concept from the gold standard. What makes a diagnostic procedure, or a measuring instrument, the gold standard is that its nature is so intimately related to what is being tested, that it is difficult to conceive of any way of its being wrong. The results produced by high-tech, state-of-the-art gadgets are, on the other hand, typically many steps removed from what they measure. These gadgets may be the very best thing to use because of their convenience, affordability, etc., but such considerations are irrelevant to something being a gold standard.
    – jsw29
    Jul 29 '20 at 22:29
  • I see "gold standard" and "state of the art" more as opposites - "gold standard" in addition to be "standard"/"benchmark"/"measuring stick"/... also imply being universally accepted vs. "state of the art" being just the latest and greatest but not necessary proven itself. Jul 30 '20 at 0:12
  • @Thomas "Gold standard" means exactly what you're looking for. Use it.
    – user91988
    Jul 30 '20 at 15:17
4

After some searching, I think the best alternative is:

Definitive

From Merriam-Webster:

Definitive. Adjective.

  1. serving to provide a final solution or to end a situation a definitive victory. E.g., could not give a definitive diagnosis.
  2. authoritative and apparently exhaustive. E.g., a definitive critical biography.
  3. serving to define or specify precisely. E.g., established definitive guidelines for sentencing criminals.
  4. serving as a perfect example : QUINTESSENTIAL. E.g., a definitive bourgeois.

The example sentences in the question would become the following.

  1. A nasal swab is the definitive test for diagnosing COVID-19.
  2. The IPK served as the definitive standard for all scales from 1889 until 2019.

It's not a perfect substitute because it's an adjective rather than a noun, but it's good enough.

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In support of Paragon (already mentioned in passing): etymonline says:

"a model or pattern of special excellence or perfection; a person of supreme merit or excellence," 1540s, from Middle French paragon "a model, pattern of excellence"

However, following the thread further, it turns out to be an etymological descendant of a word meaning (basically) "touchstone" which, of course, is closely related to the controversial much-loved or much-hated "gold standard".

Mirriam-Webster includes this information directly without worrying about the French:

Noun
...derives from the Old Italian word paragone, which literally means "touchstone." A touchstone is a black stone that was formerly used to judge the purity of gold or silver. The metal was rubbed on the stone and the color of the streak it left indicated its quality. In modern English, both touchstone and paragon have come to signify a standard against which something should be judged. Ultimately, paragon comes from the Greek parakonan, meaning "to sharpen," from the prefix para- ("alongside of") and akonē, meaning "whetstone."

So it is still related to the gold standard; but it is not immediately obvious. However, it is very well-fitted to your question, as it is also a verb meaning "to compare":

Definition of paragon (Entry 2 of 2)
transitive verb
1 : to compare with : parallel
2 : to put in rivalry : match
3 obsolete : surpass

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I would use quintessence. Though less common than quintessential, it's not too formal and carries a similar meaning.

A thing that is the most perfect example of its type; the most perfect embodiment of something; epitome, prototype.
Wiktionary

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