It’s having a moment in the cultural firmament. This year, the New Yorker published a short story satirising business-speak. Entitled A Deep Dive to Remember, and using jargon to tell the story of a romance, it began with Sara telling Jared, “I just wanted to reach out …”.
Evangelicals do it. PR types do it. Even political parties do it: according to a recent headline, the Turnbull government “reached out” to Labor and the Greens over campaign rules for the same-sex marriage vote.
As one blogger has pointed out, Google’s NGram Viewer, a search engine that charts the usage of terms, shows a rise in the phrase’s use since about 1970. We now use it 2½ times more often.
“It’s a bit unctuous, isn’t it,” said Edmund Weiner, deputy chief editor of the Oxford English Dictionary. A stalwart of the publication since 1977, Weiner knows a thing or two about words and how we use them. “We’re used to business talk being a bit oily or slimy, because they want to win you over.”
If you think “reach out” sounds American, that’s because it is. The dictionary examples of “reach out” are all literal, in the sense of using one’s arms, until the 20th century. That’s when we read of American organisations like welfare agencies “reaching out” to – that is, helping – people.
Then came the 1966 Motown hit by The Four Tops, Reach Out (I’ll Be There). In 1979, an AT&T advertising campaign co-opted the expression to praise long-distance calls.
The campaign became one of the most successful in the history of advertising. It had its own addictive jingle (“Reach out, reach out, and touch someone!”). It’s why the words still have the sound of a sales pitch.
“Reach out smells a bit phoney, I think,” said Tim de Lisle, author of the book How To Write Well, a guide aimed at young people, and a veteran magazine editor. “It’s an expression that people reach for without believing in it or liking it.”
Like it or loathe it, it says something about our digital age. Talk of reaching out evokes the image of someone reaching through a screen, that omnipresent pane which mediates our interactions.
Last year, writer and critic Olivia Laing published the book The Lonely City, an exploration of the condition of loneliness. In it, she captured the conundrum of social media by saying, “You can reach out or you can hide; you can lurk and you can reveal yourself, curated and refined.”
While writing this piece, I asked a few friends how the phrase makes them feel. One said when he first heard it, it made him feel as if his personal space was being invaded. Another said that if I used it on her, she would “strangle” me. Noted.
Personally, I have to admit to a sneaking – and perhaps perverse – attraction to the phrase. I can’t say I like it, but it doesn’t horrify me in the way it once did. I am interested in the way language evolves.
Thus far, the Oxford English Dictionary has not sanctioned the use of “reach out” to mean “contact”. Readers might well rejoice, but they shouldn’t feel too safe. English is replete with what used to be clangers.
“Contact” itself was once a hated Americanism. It is a classic case of a noun turned verb, a now-familiar story in business-speak. For a sense of early feelings about contact’s metamorphosis, take this line from a book by P.G. Wodehouse in 1936: “The prospect whom I was planning to contact, as they call it in America, was leaning back in the arm-chair.”
This sort of linguistic infiltration happens “all the time”, said Weiner. He gives the example of saying “I’m good”, instead of “I’m well”. He admits to saying it himself, albeit “with an ironic smirk”.
In de Lisle’s case, it’s the creeping brevity of text messages. He says he is on the verge of picking up his 19-year-old daughter’s habit of dropping the “O” in “OK” – “but not other than with my daughter”.
So when should one decide to go with the tide?
I thought Weiner would say “never”, but he was surprisingly relaxed. With some patience, he explained that lexicographers do not judge. He said they are more like zoologists studying animal behaviour. “We’re much more interested in analysing usage than passing judgment,” he said. “We’re more inclined to be interested.”
And he is interested in “reach out”. He had not previously noticed its use to mean “contact”, but said that on checking the dictionary’s collections he could see recent examples.
Weiner said, “There is a yuck element, but not always. It may be used completely sincerely, in which case, why not?”
Given the feeling it provokes, some caution is still in order. We write for other people, not to alienate them. Persuasion fails if it comes across as manipulation.
De Lisle remains firmly opposed to the rise of “reach out”. His cardinal rules for writing are good ones: be clear, be concise and, not least, be vivid. The phrase fails in his eyes for the simple reason that it sounds clichéd.
“The best writing has a bit of individuality to it,” he said. “That excludes ‘reach out’ unless you’re The Four Tops.”