level playing field

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level playing field

Post by Shelley » Thu Jun 18, 2009 10:18 pm

I’ve had a request. Someone would like the Wordwizards to discuss the origin of the phrase “a level playing field”. Now, I checked and there was an inquiry which received an answer in the form of a quote from Evan Morris, The Word Detective. Morris doesn’t discuss the origins, though, except to say something about its emergence in business-speak in the 1970’s, and gives no source for his statement. Other Wordwizard appearances of “a level playing field” or “leveling the playing field” are in discussions of business cliches and cases in which the poster is using the phrase as it is meant to be used.

I used One Look, and found the following, from The Phrase Finder:
. . . The figurative use of the phrase isn't especially old and the first record I can find of it is from the Tyrone Daily Herald, January 1977:
"Our philosophy is that we have no problem competing with the mutual savings banks if they start from the level playing field," Bolger said. [John Bolger, lobbyist for the US Bankers Association]

This harks back to another American phrase, from about a century before - on the level. This is first recorded in George Burnham's Memoirs of the United States Secret Service, 1872:"On the level, meeting a man with honorable intentions."
Also, the online Deardorff’s Glossary of International Economics provides the following definition:
The objective of those who advocate protection on the grounds the foreign firms have an unfair advantage. A level playing field would remove such advantages, although it is not usually clear what sorts of advantage (including comparative advantage) would be permitted to remain.
The problem, however, is not lack of a definition. Perhaps the 1977 quote from John Bolger above is the origin. Is it simply just another sports analogy in the language of business?

Does anyone have anything more concrete?

Re: level playing field

Post by trolley » Thu Jun 18, 2009 11:04 pm

Nothing concrete, but I am surprised (if it's true) that the phrase was invented as business-speak in the late seventies and never had a literal meaning. I can easily imagine that "back in the day" it would have been difficult to make a playing field (football, soccer, rugby, etc.) exactly level, resulting in an unfair advantage to one side. Even my high school field was noticeably slanted and it was much more difficult to defend or attack from the low side. BTW it's more common, around here, to hear "even out/up the playing field" Same diff, though.

Re: level playing field

Post by Ken Greenwald » Fri Jun 19, 2009 11:07 pm

Shelley, William Safire had this to say:


LEVEL PLAYING FIELD: Equity in competition; equality of opportunity. . . . Origin of the phrase is uncertain—the playing fields of Eton have been mentioned as a source, but the image of flat surface for equality in battle has its root as old as the Bible. As the servants of Benhadad, king of Syria, tell their leader about the army of Israel: ‘Their gods are gods of hills; therefore they were stronger than we; let us fight against them in the plain, and surely we shall be stronger than they’ (1 Kings 20:23). . . .

Safire’s earliest quote is from 1979 (see quotes below).

And, specifically, in business and finance:

BARRON'S FINANCE AND INVESTMENT HANDBOOK (7th edition, 2007, page 549) by Downes & Goodman

LEVEL PLAYING FIELD]/b]: Condition in which competitors operate under the same rules. For example, all banks must follow the same regulations set down by the Federal Reserve. In some situations, competitors complain to regulators or Congress that they are not playing on a level playing field. For example, banks contend that brokerage firms can offer certain banking services without the same rules imposed on banks. Companies wanting to export to a particular country may complain that domestic companies are protected by various trade barriers, creating an uneven playing field. Various sections of the tax code may favor some companies more than others, prompting cries from the disadvantaged firms to ‘level the playing field.”

John, It does seems logical that LEVEL PLAYING FIELD was literal before it turned figurative, and it was. I found many literal examples referring mostly to high school, college, and professional sports fields being close to the horizontal or being made closer to it by moving dirt around. My earliest find is from 1927:
<1927 “The city school board is having a sports field developed in the rear of George Washington High School. . . The city engineer has drafted the plans for the removal of dirt so as to afford a level playing field.”—The Bee (Danville, Virginia), 1 September, page >

<1931 “The grading was ordered in order that a level playing field might be secured, and a determined effort now is planned to establish a good turf on the field.”—Alton Evening Telegraph (Illinois), 5 March, page 10>

<1937 “The terraces will be constructed . . .so as to keep all persons on the roadway from seeing the games without entering the park. The level playing field will be 550 feet long and 220 feet wide.”—Sheboygan Journal (Wisconsin), 1 March, page 37>

<1943 “The night before the Dodgers [[Brooklyn baseball team]] picked Bear Mountain for there training site somebody counted 22 deer feeding on the baseball field. . . [Bear Mountain] rising 1500 feet from where the Hudson [[river]] winds around its base, make it a popular weekend spot for city folks. . . The Dodgers announcement put considerable stress on the fact that there’s a level playing field. In fact, it probably is the only level field in that part of the country . . .”—The Free-Lance Starp (The Free-Lance Star (Fredericksburg, Virginia), 18 January, page 4>

<1952 “[Coach] Black has more room for his activities but he is handicapped because the large level playing field is too far from the homes of the children.”—Ada Evening News (Oklahoma), 9 June, page 4>

<1964 “We took about 20 inches of dirt off the north end of the field and built up the south end by 38 inches to give a level playing field . . .”—Big Spring Daily Herald (Texas), 10 July, page 12>

<1975 (pool table advertisement) “Permanent Level Playing Field, Professional Rubber Cushions, Professional Cloth . . .”—Syracuse Herald-American (New York), 22 December, page 125>
The earliest example of the figurative sense of LEVEL PLAYING FIELD I came up with was from January 1, 1953 (see quote below), and it is not in reference to business. It is in reference to giving away goals to a weaker team – polo in India – probably to make what would have been a lopsided win more exciting for the fans. On the other hand, it is conceivable that, with no fear of losing, they were doing it out of charity so as not to embarrass their comrades on the opposing team. But in either case this usage doesn't seem to quite correspond to what we think of today as leveling the playing field. On the other hand, in a strange sort of way, giving away points would lead to “equity in competition,” at least as far as the final score was concerned! (<:)

My second example is from January 5, 1977, and this one is in the figurative business sense, and this is the same quote that was cited above (I’ve just included source names, exact dates, and pages) which appeared in 3 Pennsylvania newspapers on the same day.

The 1953 quote is certainly an outlier and my finding not another trace of the expression until 1977 – that’s a 24-year drought – is passing strange. But this could be the case. A writer for an Indian newspaper uses this metaphor once, forgets about it or goes on to another career. No one takes much notice of what a nifty and apt expression it is – and 1950s access to Indian news media outside the country probably wasn't that great – the expression dies and has to wait about a quarter century to get reinvented and appear in print once again in 1977 in a Pennsylvania newspaper.

After the 1977 quote, I found only one more quote until 1981. But in 1981 things really broke loose and thereafter there appeared an increasing torrent of examples.

The first examples I found of the close relatives LEVELING THE PLAYING FIELD and LEVEL THE PLAYING FIELD were from 1983 and 1984 respectively and likewise there appeared an increasing deluge of these examples following these dates.
<1953 “In polo, better players ‘give away’ goals to their weaker opponents to create a level playing field for a match.”—Deccan Herald (Bangalore, India), 1 January>

<1977 “"Our philosophy is that we have no problem competing with the mutual savings banks if they start from the level playing field, ‘Bolger said.’”—Tyrone Daily Herald (Pennsylvania), 5 January, page 3; New Castle News (Pennsylvania), page 5; Simpson's Leader-Times (Kittanning, Pennsylvania), page 2>

<1979 “Mr. Brawner said the Oregon B.A. [[Bankers Association]] welcomed ‘any and all competition, on a level playing field.”—The American Banker> [[in Safire’s Political Dictionary]]

<1981 “The goal of the banking industry is to be able to compete on a level playing field with any and all comers, stated the ABA [[American Bankers Association]] president.”—Frederick News-Post (Maryland), 17 February, page 16>

<1981 “The increased competition that is resulting from federal deregulation of financial institutions, Gunderson [[president of the American Bankers Association]] said, was ‘healthy’ ‘but the playing field should be level.’”—Post Standard (Syracuse, New York), 2 April, page 20>

<1981 “As Citicorp’s Watson told his stockholders the other day: ‘We welcome the competition, but want an opportunity to compete on a level playing field.”—Daily Intelligencer (Doylestown, Pennsylvania), 26 April, page 51>

<1981 “Money market funds can pay higher interest rates because they are not required to keep the same percentage of reserves as banks and S&Ls. Financial institutions can’t earn interest on money kept in reserves. ‘It is not a level playing field,’ said Bob Begnoche, Securities Savings and Loan president.”—Salina Journal (Kansas), 7 July, page 1>

<1981 “Bankers have been seeking freedom from interest rate regulations for some time so they could compete with money market funds on a ‘level playing field.’”— New Mexican (Sante Fe, New Mexico), 1 August, page 3>

<1981 “To create what one Treasury official describes as a ‘level playing field’ for business, the new provisions now let struggling companies sell their tax credits and depreciation opportunities to more profitable firms. Time Magazine, 2 November>

<1981 “Casting itself as David against the American Telephone and Telegraph Company Goliath is the Telocator Network of America, representing more than half the radio common carriers (RCCS) in this country. . . Lamoureux [[Telocator executive director]] maintains that the RCCS are . . . prepared to proceed with development and implementation, but that they deserve a more level playing field.”—Aiken Standard (South Carolina), 11 November, page 28>

<1983 “Leveling the playing field should be a top priority for Washington as it tackles the question of economic recovery. St. Petersburg Times (Florida), 12 March, page 12>

<1984 “The free market is disappearing from sector after sector, and a growing number of American business leaders want Washington to help their industries, thereby ‘leveling the playing field.’”—‘Gainesville Sun (Florida), 21 October, page 15>

<1984 “Charles McLure, assistant Treasury secretary for tax policy, said it would be perfectly reasonable to ‘level the playing field’ as much as possible.”—Philadelphia Inquirer (Pennsylvania), 9 December>

<1985 “But by leveling the playing field at home, you've basically worsened the playing field in the global economic sense.”—Dallas Morning News (Texas), 3 June>
(quotes from archived sources)

Ken – June 18, 2009

Re: level playing field

Post by Erik_Kowal » Sat Jun 20, 2009 5:47 am

Ken, with the exception of the 1953 Indian citation, I notice that your examples are all drawn from US sources.

I can add that the 'level playing field' has also been an irritating cliché in British politics for a pretty long time -- at my guess, for at least 15 years, and possibly a good deal longer than that.

I'm afraid I can only assert the point, however, not prove it with citations.
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Re: level playing field

Post by Shelley » Sat Jun 20, 2009 10:12 pm

Ken! Thank you, thank you, thank you. As always, I am amazed at the depth of your research. And look! A quote that pre-dates 1977! Cool.

Generally, I harbor a knee-jerk resentment of sports and/or war imagery used in corporate language, but I don't mind this expression. It describes a pretty complicated concept with a short, neat image. My negative reactions come from having been seriously shaped by the women's movement in the early 70's, and particularly from a book I read called "Games Mother Never Taught You: Corporate Gamesmanship for Women", by Betty Harragan. It was a real eye-opener for me. Another good one: "You Just Don't Understand", by Deborah Tannen. ANYWAY . . .

The point is, back in the 70's, few women had experience playing traditionally male-dominated team sports like football or baseball, and therefore were handicapped in a working world where the dynamic and language was based on lessons learned over time playing certain team sports -- lessons that most men took for granted and which were the foundation for the corporate rule book. Going to war (another team "sport") also serves as a model for corporate behavior. Lots of business language comes from military imagery.

Fact is, sports and war imagery works very well for the purpose of communicating strategy, goals, and corporate philosophy. More women wield power in business and I think generally they are less naive about the traditional way of the traditional work world.

Re: level playing field

Post by Wizard of Oz » Sun Jun 21, 2009 11:22 am

.. I post the following quotes to show that this useful little idiom has become a very large arena being used with reference to a whole range of topics apart from its financial birthplace ..
April 2000, Corporate Health Care.
In the Health Care Marketplace the patient is not an effective customer and the level playing field is almost perpendicular. Contracts for care are with others who are the real customers.

Rural Society Journal, Volume 12, Issue 1, 2002
A Level Playing Field for Internet Opportunities?: Issues for rural and city blind and visually impaired people
Qualitative research investigated the attitudes to, and experiences of, 20 visually impaired people in rural and urban areas of Australia to accessing information via the Internet.

23 March, 2004, Byron Shire Echo
Vote 1 John Anderson for a level playing field.
No how-to-vote cards will be distributed on election day. Consult advertisement in Thursday’s Byron News for my councillor recommendations.

24 October 2006
Playing Field Levelled For NSW Selective Schools Exams
NSW Minister for Education and Training, Carmel Tebbutt, today granted access for all to past exam papers for the Selective High Schools Test and Opportunity Class Placement Test. Ms Tebbutt said making the papers publicly available would ensure a level playing field for all students.

10 February , 2007, The Daily Telegraph,
Surrogacy advocates want level playing field.
The nationwide service which matches egg donors with infertile women is now lobbying for legislative change and says the nation is in urgent need of uniform laws.

28 Jun 2007
Creating a level playing field in more than just sport.
The Centre for Multicultural Youth Issues (CMYI) and the City of Yarra engaged LOTE Marketing to undertake a research project to examine the involvement of Culturally and Linguistically Diverse (CLD) young people in leisure centres within the City of Yarra. The aim of the project was to gather information from both young people aged 12-25 from CLD backgrounds and City of Yarra leisure centre staff that would inform both the City of Yarra and CMYI’s strategic directions in increasing participation and access for CLD young people to leisure centres.

18 January, 2009, Sydney Morning Herald
Law to bring level playing field.
A human rights act would be an important step towards a fair go for all Australians.

12 Sep, 2008, ABC News
Bluescope wants level playing field on carbon emissions
The head of Australia's biggest steel firm says the introduction of an emissions trading scheme is the most important public policy issue facing the steel industry.
.. when researching these quotes I came across this rather uncomplimentary definition on the ANZ bank website ..
Financial Dictionary, ANZ
Level playing field
Jargon phrase which became so worn that its users often forgot what it meant; that is, an equal opportunity for all. Some politicians, economists, lawyers and business people have seized on the level playing field as a utopian goal to be achieved by regulating away the differences between people. Of course, in a competitive economy, which seems to be the only sort that works, the field is never level. It is the irregularities that create competitive advantage (another jargon phrase).
WoZ sitting on the side of the hill
Signature: "The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."

Re: level playing field

Post by hsargent » Mon Jun 22, 2009 2:34 pm

I remember Freshman English and the use of an expression such as "level playing field" would draw a red mark of "Trite, -5".

As a country boy, I had to look up Trite.

So expressions such a level playing field were an effort to avoid being trite no doubt. And if they are particularly astute, they get used and another Freshman loses 5 points for using it.

It is interesting how some expression remain regional and possibly die out and some become international. Then some exist on in time, pass language barriers, and eventually Wordwizard has a challenge to reestablish the basis for some old expressions.

Example: I heard in England that the drought was so bad that the cities are considering reestablish the "stand pipes".
Signature: Harry Sargent

Re: level playing field

Post by Bobinwales » Mon Jun 22, 2009 4:05 pm

hsargent wrote:I heard in England that the drought was so bad that the cities are considering reestablish the "stand pipes".
"Standpipe" is a word in current use all over the UK, not just in times of drought either. A camp-site would have standpipes for happy campers to make their morning tea for instance.
Signature: All those years gone to waist!
Bob in Wales

Re: level playing field

Post by hsargent » Tue Jun 23, 2009 2:26 pm

In the US, we call the standpipe in a camp ground a faucet. I doubt if standpipe will have any special meaning in the US because there is no way the plumbing in a US neighborhood could be blocked and a single faucet provided without a major investment. It must be a standard in the UK.

But the example was more of how expressions develop in their usage. Eaves drop is another which we have discussed. Such a crazy image it creates but it is commonly know internationally.
Signature: Harry Sargent

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