BENCHMARKING began its popular life as a metaphor drawn from the 19th Century surveyor’s lexicon. Originally, it described carved marks in a wall that showed, for example, how high a tide has risen or where, in a mine-shaft, sea level lies.
Management consultants eventually borrowed it to refer to levels of business achievement that could be measured and, one presumes, eventually exceeded-with the help of the right consultant. Because the borrowed phrase (soon transformed into a verb) was never all that precise in its new context, it quickly grew to refer to almost any level of anything that is compared to any other level. It is now practically impossible to read a management paper (or plan, or evaluation) on any topic that doesn’t benchmark something.
Interestingly, the word has nothing to do with benches in the ordinary sense. The original surveyor’s mark was a kind of groove in the wall, in which the top bar of an angle iron (shaped like a 7) could be inserted. The angle iron then served as a “bench” on which to rest an instrument that measures deviations from the level originally marked.