The Grammarphobia Blog

Is synergy a sin?

Q: Here’s my pet peeve: I’ve had my fill of the word “synergy.” It seemed to come out of nowhere 15 or 20 years ago, and now it’s everywhere. Enough already! Let’s show this newbie the door.

A: You’re right that “synergy” is seen a lot these days, especially in the corporate world, but it’s definitely not a newbie.

The Oxford English Dictionary has published references dating back to a 1660 ecclesiastical history by Peter Heylin: “They speak only of such a Synergie, or cooperation, as makes men differ from a sensless stock, or liveless statua, in reference to the great work of his own conversion.”

At first the word referred simply to cooperation or working together. By the mid-19th century, scientists were using it to refer to the combined action of bodily organs, mental faculties, remedies. Here’s an 1867 citation from the writings of the philosopher George Henry Lewes: “It is to be observed that the phrenologists have been fully alive to the synergy of organs in producing mental phenomena.”

The most common meaning of “synergy” now (a combined effort that’s greater than its parts) is relatively new, dating from the 1950s, according to the OED. Here’s a definition of “synergy” from a 1966 book on corporate strategy by Harry Igor Ansoff: “It is frequently described as the ‘2 + 2 = 5’ effect to denote the fact that the firm seeks a product-market posture with a combined performance that is greater than the sum of its parts.”

A related term, “synergism,” which dates from 1764, refers to a religious doctrine that human will cooperates with divine grace in the work of regeneration.

As for your pet peeve, “synergy” may sometimes be used too much, but it serves a purpose and I don’t know of any other word that means quite the same thing. On balance, I’d give it thumbs up.

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