Of all the news stories I heard last week on how well the Iraqi government is doing to meet its "benchmarks" for success, no two of them gave the same characterization of exactly what the benchmark report actually reported.
So maybe we should consider a more basic question: Just what is a benchmark anyway?
It's a term borrowed from surveying. The bench marks (written as two words in this sense) of the US Geological Survey are disks generally made of brass; they look like giant cuff links.
But the original "bench-mark" (which the Oxford English Dictionary writes with a hyphen) was "a surveyor's mark cut in some durable material, as a rock, wall, gate-pillar, face of a building, etc.," it explains.
The bench mark that the British Ordnance Survey uses is familiar to anyone who's gone hiking in England, because the mark is part of the logo on OS maps. One way to picture it is to see a horizontal bar with an upward pointing arrow beneath it.
The horizontal bar is really the mark itself. The arrow beneath is just for emphasis – "Here it is! This isn't just any old stray nick in a rock. This is a bench mark!"
And the mark is known as a bench mark because, I read further in the OED, "In taking a reading, an angle iron (angle) is held with its upper extremity inserted in the horizontal bar so as to form a temporary bracket or bench for the support of the levelling-staff, which can thus be placed on absolutely the same base on any subsequent occasion."
A little cut into stone, in other words, ensures an accurate measure, or at least a constant one, now and henceforth. What a useful thing: a constant reference point.
Surveyors and their bench marks were critical to the settling of the United States, according to a new book, "The Fabric of America," by Andro Linklater. He explains how surveyors defined boundaries as new settlers pushed west and laid claim to property. The settlers relied on the government to protect their property rights; the government relied on the settlers to spread the American political experiment across the continent.
But aside from the practical value of "bench marks" as physical things, there is value in "benchmark" as metaphor. There's a whole group of words that mark out paths for us, literally, metaphorically, or both.
Benchmark is arguably the most, well, sedentary of the lot. Nobody hikes from benchmark to benchmark – I don't think. Some of the other terms in this group have a bit more movement implicit in them.
Milestone would have made a good metaphor to assess progress in Iraq. It has a certain cool objectivity about it, in the sense that either you've made it from Point A to Point B or you haven't.
But benchmark has that aspect of constancy – of taking a true check. I can just hear the scrape of the angle iron against the stone; can't you?
Landmarks are more subjective than milestones, and may be appreciated best in hindsight. Fifty years in business may be a milestone for a company, but the introduction of Master Widget 3.0 may turn out to be its landmark achievement.
Waymark sounds a bit quaint, and, like milestone, it appears to be vanishing into the realm of metaphor. But in England it's a normal term for a sign marking a walking trail.
And then there's finger post: "A post bearing one or more signs often terminating in a pointing finger," as Merriam-Webster Online explains. That sounds even quainter than waymark. A friend of mine once told me about having seen some finger posts on a back road somewhere in England. He was initially baffled at how high up they were – well above eye level for pedestrians or motorists. He finally decided the signs were meant to be seen by the coachmen at the reins of horse-drawn carriages.
Summer is a time of travel by many different modes. Whichever track you follow, don't lose sight of your waymarks.