In my new column for the Visual Thesaurus, I take a long look at the reach out idiom, as in “We’ve reached out to the WHO to see what they know” (a line of dialogue from the new Steven Soderbergh movie Contagion). I wondered why reach out was both so widespread and so derided as “euphemism,” “jargon,” “useless verbiage,” or “a dramatic way of saying a very mundane thing.”
Ngram for reach out, showing a steady increase in usage since about 1970, when Diana Ross released her single “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand).” Ngrams draw on a corpus of published books.
When I searched for reach out, reached out, and reaching out in the last 30 days of the New York Times, I got a total of 117 results, almost all of them metaphorical rather than literal. They include “In Egypt, Islamists Reach Out to Wary Secularists,” “Reaching Out to the Tea Party in S.C.,” and “Then last summer, something surprising happened—the Pentagon reached out to him.”
I found exactly one use of reach(ed)(ing) out in the literal “touching with fingers” sense, in a Sunday Magazine article about a young man with autism:
“Oh,” Justin said reverently, reaching out his hand to touch it. “That’s beautiful.”
You’ll need to subscribe to read the entire Visual Thesaurus column, which includes references to Ambrose Bierce, Marshall McLuhan, and the Four Tops. Here’s an excerpt:
Reach out doesn’t fit the pattern of other widely loathed business words. It isn’t one of the -izes (e.g., incentivize, monetize, productionalize). It isn’t borrowed from a specialized vocabulary (bandwidth, Six Sigma, synergy). It isn’t misleading (actionable, conquesting, agile, and other words I discussed in a 2010 Candlepower column, “Weird Words from the Corporatese Lexicon”). It isn’t a neologism (user-centric, near-shoring, proactive).
On the contrary: reach and out are two of the oldest, commonest words in the language. Both have Old English roots, and reach has had figurative meanings—“to understand,” “to arrive at a destination or goal”—for centuries. Far-reaching, to mean “extensive,” was first recorded in 1824 (“the dusky heath far-reaching”); overreaching speech appeared in print in 1579. And reach out in the sense of “communicate with” is at least a century old; the OED gives this 1912 example: “Groups and agencies which are planning to reach out to low-income families with educational efforts in the area of sound family life.” Note, too, that we use many other tactile words in figurative senses: Our feelings can be hurt, we’re seized by terror, a story touches us.
But apparently it’s one thing to hear Robert Browning’s “Ah, a man’s reach should exceed his grasp/Or what’s a heaven for?” and quite another to open an email from a colleague and read, “Let’s reach out to Sales for feedback.” It’s not the message; it’s the corporate medium that contaminates reach out.
Read the full article, “Does ‘Reach Out’ Overreach?” Do you agree with the commenter who wrote, “The only time I ‘reach out’ is to strangle the person who said it?”
UPDATE: Language columnist Jan Freeman, who blogs at Throw Grammar from the Train, offers another angle on reach out: the “NYPD Blue” connection.
Bonus for my blog readers: sing along to one of the original (1979) “Reach Out and Touch Someone” commercials for the Bell System.