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Thanks for ‘Reaching Out’

Last January, Forbes ran a clever feature called “Jargon Madness,” in which various egregious business catchphrases squared off against one another in a March Madness-style mock tournament. The champion was drinking the Kool-Aid, in a close win over leverage (the verb form). Interestingly, I recognized only three clichés as having crossed over to (from?) academe, two of them being best practices and robust. (Transformative and service learning may be too specific to higher ed.)

The third term in the Forbes list that I am familiar with, from countless meetings, e-mails, and memos, is reach out to. In the first two rounds, it demolished learnings and take offline, only to run into the juggernaut it is what it is in the quarter-finals.

Reach out does not generally get a lot of love from people who notice and comment on language. In August 201o, someone who goes by “Big Ed Moustapha” posted this definition on urbandictionary.com:

This has become the new cliché for yuppie types or any pseudo-intellectual types or just idiots that think it sounds special. It is simply just another way of saying: contact, call, speak to, notify, etc.

Several months later, another Urban Dictionary poster noted that thanks for reaching out had itself become a hackneyed formulation and gave this example of its use in conversation:

“Hi John, thanks for reaching out. I’m quite busy right now on many important projects. Why don’t you reach out to me again at this time next year and see if I have a couple of free minutes then. Or, better yet, how about never? Does never work for you?”

What’s not to hate about reach out to? It’s a cliché, a catchphrase; it invokes emotional portent without earning it; it is verbose. I despise it. Yet I recently found myself saying that I was going to “reach out to” someone, and I actually don’t feel so bad.

This represents a dramatic change. Traditionally, when my students or children used the phrase, I reflexively told them to replace it with contact or get in touch with. But I have been reflecting that there is nothing so great about either of those alternatives. The Oxford English Dictionary calls contact-as-verb “originally U.S. colloquial” and cites a 1936 book by P.G. Wodehouse: “The prospect whom I was planning to contact, as they call it in America, was leaning back in the arm-chair.”

Anyone who remembers when language mavens like—excuse me, such as—William Safire, Edwin Newman, and John Simon walked the earth will recall that this verb was one of their perennial examples of slovenly diction. That battle was lost long ago, but still, contact is hardly a shining example of English usage. (The animus against impact-as-verb still has some juice but is already fading.)

Get in touch with is a perfectly fine metaphor, but in what way is it any finer than reach out to? Only in that it has become what George Orwell (not disapprovingly) called “a dead metaphor”: a piece of figurative language that has been used so often and for so long that it we process it as literal, and it doesn’t strike us as hackneyed or clichéd.

Reach out to is now used mostly metaphorically as well, but it (unlike get in touch with) started out as a literal phrase, meaning to extend one’s arm, hand, or some other body part, generally in order to touch or grasp something.  The OED quotes John Jewel’s An Apologie in Defence of the Church of England (1565): “Iulius Cæsar raught out his foot for Pompeius Pœnus to kisse.” Early metaphorical uses tended to refer to divine outreach; Richard Baxter observed in 1838, “There is a special love due to such a one, as the hand by which God did reach out to us his invaluable mercies.” By a century later, the phrase had come to signify sympathetic and inclusive actions toward a person or group. The Los Angeles Times editorialized in 1940: “We must reach out to the young people who have to make their own way in the world, frequently unprepared.”

The chart below, a Google Ngram, shows the comparative frequency of reach out to him (blue), get in touch with him (red), and contact him (green) in American books published from 1910 to 2008 (the most recent year for which figures are available).

The big story, clearly, is the long ascendance of contact since its coinage, just a few years before Wodehouse noticed it.  The only plateaus are in the 1980s (because of the mavens’ disapproval?) and in the last few years of the chart, when it has presumably suffered at the hand of reach out to. The growth spurt of that phrase dates from the early 1970s. Let’s be more specific and say 1970, which was when Diana Ross had a monster hit with “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand).” Nine years later AT&T cemented the phrase into our consciousness with its slogan “Reach out and touch someone.”

But reach out to retained a particular meaning, of somehow making a notable effort to extend oneself (hard to avoid the metaphors), for at least a couple of decades. As late as 1999, in his book To End a War, Richard Holbrooke distinguished between the reaching out and the actual point of contact: “Still looking for ways to reach out to [the Bosnian prime minister], I invited him to dinner. …” The change to a more general meaning—for initiating any kind of communication—seems to have happened by the mid-2000s, as witness this advice proffered by the author of a 2006 book called Sugar Shock! “Reach out to a savvy physician who understands sugar issues. Reach out to my free, online international KickSugar support group and www.SugarShockBlog.com. Reach out to family members, friends, colleagues, members of Overeaters Anonymous or another support group. Reach out to your Higher Power, if you believe in one.”

Not coincidentally, the mid-2000s were also the time when the means of contacting someone became profoundly and permanently multiple. In addition to the old-school writing, telephoning, and knocking on someone’s door, we had to choose among e-mailing, texting, IM-ing, Facebook poking, etc. Demand for an all-purpose verb increased. Contact and get in touch with were a bit frayed around the edges. Reach out to stepped into the breach and kicked butt.

My change of heart about reach out to isn’t complete. Its gratuitous touchy-feely-ness still gives me pause. If one is able to be more specific—to say call, e-mail or talk to—that’s far preferable. I still do not countenance use of the phrase in prose meant for publication. But I acknowledge that there’s nothing wrong with it in a general sense. Of course, even if I did, it would mean nothing in the face of the phrase’s utter dominance.

And before long—within a couple of decades, probably—even my remaining qualms will fade away. That’s when reach out to will become a dead metaphor and begin its new life as an utterly unobjectionable phrase.

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