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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

reach out

(1980’s | advertese? therapese? | “make an overture,” “approach,” “notify,” “initiate contact”)

This phrase has been around a long time, and it was not unusual to see it the way we use it today even in the 1970’s. But as it has become more ubiquitous, its meaning, and more vitally, its force, have changed.

In the 1970’s, this phrase generally turned up in one of three contexts: politics, therapy, or religion. You might see “reach out to,” or “toward,” or “into,” or no preposition at all. The interesting feature of the seventies usage was that it was almost never something one person did to another — and when it was, it could just as well suggest a physical embrace. The president might reach out to Congress (particularly the opposing party), or a community organization might reach out to individuals that needed its brand of help. Or a missionary might reach out to a group of people who need to be converted, whether they know it or not. It is useful to remember the significance of the word “outreach” to proselytizers, religious or otherwise, meaning something like “spreading the gospel.” As my girlfriend speculated, our use of “reach out” certainly was influenced by and probably derived from this sense of “outreach.”

AT&T introduced the slogan “Reach out and touch someone” in 1979. (“Reach out” had turned up earlier in titles of a couple of popular Motown songs.) No preposition, but the point was that people should make more long-distance calls — that is, two individuals should connect with each other. The slogan remained in use for several years in various forms and undoubtedly made the expression more common, if only through parody.

Aside from adding the now routine sense of individual communication, we’ve stretched the phrase in other directions. One is the idea that “reach out” is not the same as “reach,” or “talk to.” “She reached her uncle” means she and her uncle had an exchange, but “she reached out to her uncle” doesn’t mean her uncle took the call or answered the e-mail. This change lends the expression a certain shiftiness and may encourage the idea that the intent to apologize, for example, is as good as apologizing. (I reached out to him. Is it my fault he didn’t reply?) When Aurora shooter James Holmes’s lawyer says he reached out to his psychiatrist before his rampage, she wants us to understand that it’s a mitigating factor. But something bigger is going on. Before 1980, or even 1990, “reaching out” generally had some spiritual heft to it. It implied “forgiving,” or “lending a helping hand,” or “bridging troubled waters.” It portended an honest effort to do something helpful or to improve a situation, not just a hasty tweet or an insincere voice mail. But by now this phrase has had the stuffing knocked out of it — reduced to a triviality that encompasses any old empty gesture, or any attempt to drum up business.

urbandictionary.com and Visual Thesaurus unite in deploring “reach out.” It rubs me the wrong way, too, but I’m not entirely sure why. Yes, it’s a euphemism, but we drown in those every day. I suppose it’s a little prissy, or a little sententious, and some people just hate every new expression that crosses their desk. But maybe the problem really does lie in the suppression of the spiritual or emotional, and ultimately the physical dimensions of this phrase. The gap between the old power of this phrase and its new banality perturbs us more than we realize.

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