Par for the course

Regular readers of this column may have noticed something odd during the month of May: I’ve published entries only on even-numbered dates, including today, the last one of the month. That’s a long lead-in for me to be able to point out that the Spanish word for ‘even’ in its numerical sense is par. The adjective even happens to be pure Latin, in which language the fundamental meaning of par was ‘equal.’ The mathematical notion followed logically enough, because by its nature any even [whole] number can be divided into two equal parts: for example, 10 can be divided into two groups of 5. In contrast, 9 cannot be divided into two equal [whole-numbered] groups: the closest we can come is 4 and 5, which aren’t equal.

From par we have the corresponding noun paridad/parity, though the Spanish meanings don’t correspond exactly with the English ones. In both languages the word can have the sense of ‘equality,’ but Spanish paridad can also mean ‘the act of comparing, comparison.’ Of course comparar/compare is itself a compound based on par: to compare is etymologically ‘to put two things side by side to see if they are equal.’

English has taken to using Latin par as a noun in several senses: ‘the value of the money of one country in terms of the money of another; the face value of a stock or bond; the average or normal state of something; in golf, the average number of strokes a professional golfer will take to complete a hole.’ People have whacked that last meaning outside of golf, so that the generalized expression par for the course means ‘average, typical, usual.’ The phrases below par and under par mean ‘worse than usual,’ and above par is the opposite. Readers of a certain age may remember the first stanza of Cole Porter’s song “True Love”:

Suntanned, wind-blown,
Honeymooners now alone,
Feeling far above par,
Oh how lucky we are.

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman

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If you encounter an unfamiliar technical term in any of these postings, check the Glossary in the bar across the top of the page.
©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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