“Above and beyond” is more than a lyrical and evocative phrase – it’s part of the selection criteria for the Medal of Honor, which is the highest U.S. military decoration.
Unfortunately, people misuse and abuse these powerful words every day. They’ve become a throwaway cliche tossed out to virtually anyone puts a little extra effort into even the most mundane tasks. I am certain that ignorance of the origins of “above and beyond” is behind the misuse – not disrespect. Still, those who use it so blandly could use a lesson in history and language along with encouragement to choose their words more skillfully.
The phrase “above and beyond” appears in Title 32 of The Code of Federal Regulations. It’s referenced in this passage:
Sec. 578.4 Medal of Honor.
(a) Criteria. The Medal of Honor, established by Joint Resolution of
Congress, 12 July 1862 (amended by Act of 9 July 1918 and Act of 25 July
1963) is awarded in the name of Congress to a person who, while a member
of the Army, distinguished himself conspicuously by gallantry and
intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty
while engaged in an action against an enemy of the United States; while
engaged in military operations involving conflict with an opposing
foreign force; or while serving with friendly foreign forces engaged in
an armed conflict against an opposing armed force in which the United
States is not a belligerent party (figure 1). The deed performed must
have been one of personal bravery or self-sacrifice so conspicuous as to
clearly distinguish the individual above his comrades and must have
involved risk of life.
It’s plain to see this wasn’t a phrase meant to be twisted into corporate jargon, or as recognition for spending a few hours at the office preparing a quarterly metrics report. It’s meant for people who put the safety and lives of other above themselves. Who put the mission first. And who put themselves in harm’s way.
Today, though, “above and beyond” is thrown around carelessly and is completely abraded of true meaning. It’s a band name. It’s a first-person shooter video game (disturbingly, this is the first hit when using Google to search for the “Medal of Honor”). It’s praise for a job that took you a few extra minutes to do. Meanwhile, the Medal of Honor has only been awarded 10 times since the end of U.S. military action in Vietnam – nine of which were awarded posthumously.
Next time you hear people misuse the phrase, correct them. Clue them in: If they’re referencing an act that didn’t put them in mortal danger, they’re showing vacuous disregard for the sacrifices of more than 4,300 brave people who really did go above and beyond.
And do your part – reserve “above and beyond” for people and situations that truly warrant it. If you’re any sort of writer or speaker, surely you’re creative and skilled enough to create an alternative.