Posted by: Dutch | December 7, 2009

Zero tolerance

Meaning

A form of policing that allows no crime or anti-social behaviour to be overlooked.

Origin

As the name of a form of policing this term came into use in the USA in the 1970’s. This method typically involved allocating additional law-enforcement resources to areas where some form of crime, e.g. mugging or prostitution, was endemic and then applying the strict and uncompromising letter of the law. The term was reported in The New York Times in December 1972:

“Federal officials say the calculations were based on ‘assuming zero tolerance’ from now on for ineligibility and overpayments.”

The name, as well as the policing method, has since migrated to other countries. The term had been used in the USA in other contexts prior to the policing usage, for example, seeds which were treated with pesticides were often described as having ‘zero tolerance’ to disease. Also, in October 1943, The Ogden Standard-Examiner reported a precision machine tool called a ‘Zero-Tol’:

“The device makes it possible to set four tools at once. After the tools are set up, they return to their exact positions without special attention from the operator.”

– Sincere thanks to Gart Martin of The Phrase Finder

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