In pole vaulting they raise the bar to determine greatest ability. But where did the expression ‘Raise the bar’ really come from?

Here is another example of folk etymology being incorrect in my new book, Most Comprehensive Origins of Cliches, Proverbs and Figurative Expressions, Volume II, to be released later this month:

Raise the bar^

This expression is used to refer to gradually setting a standard of success or quality higher. It is said to be taken from pole vaulting and high jumping where the bar is set higher as the competition gets stiffer and new records are set. The earliest references in print, however, are from a different ‘bar.’ In the Proceedings of the Illinois Bar Association, Forty-fifth Annual Meeting at Dixon, June 9, 10, 11, 1921, page 61. Note that it is talking of raising the ‘standard of ethics’ but that bar is not capitalized, making it ambiguous:

“We think that if all of the counties throughout the state would do that, it would tend to raise the standard of ethics, of conduct of the profession; and the reading of those canons by the public at large would tend to raise the bar in the public esteem.”

The next year in the Proceedings of the Alabama State Bar Association, Held at Southern Club, Birmingham Alabama, April 28, 29, 1922, a similar statement was made, on page 42, and bar is capitalized, indicating that the origin could indeed be from raising the ideals for attorneys, not the bar used in high jumps;

“And already what we say, if we say is right, goes a long way, but when we raise the Bar to that high standard it should occupy, where we make every lawyer feel that he is an officer of the court, that the oath he takes is a solemn obligation, that it is up to him to live up to the obligation.”            

The next unmistakably figurative use of the phrase also comes in a legal context in 1935, in the New York Court of Appeals, Records and Briefs, page 59:

“The validity of an indictment does not ordinarily depend upon the correctness of a date appearing therein, provided the time alleged does not raise the bar of the statute of limitations.”

A similar citation appears in a New York Court of Appeals record in 1942 in regard to raising the bar of a statute. In fact, the first available reference to raising the bar for high jumping does not come until a Life Magazine article on July 13, 1953.