English language Uncategorized

Reach out and touch someone

Q: I hear thirty-somethings around the newsroom where I work use a phrase that sets my teeth on edge: “reach out,” as in “Why don’t you reach out to correspondent Jane Doe and see if she’ll file a piece for us?” Now, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with “reach out,” but it seems out of place for a phone call to a reporter. If you wouldn’t mind reaching out to me, what are your thoughts?

A: Only a psycholinguist can answer this question. My guess is that ordinary language (“Why don’t you ask Jane Doe to file a piece for us?”) sometimes seems inadequate.

If one’s purpose is to make asking Jane Doe sound subtly complicated, weighty, and significant (in other words, a brilliant idea!), then one says “reach out to Jane Doe.” Corporate language is full of stuff like this.

But on to the expression itself: “reach out.” It always brings to mind AT&T’s famous “Reach out and touch someone” ad campaign, which had its debut in 1979 (the first commercial ran on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show”). Perhaps we have AT&T to thank for the ubiquitous use of “reach out” today.

The verb “reach,” meaning to extend one’s hand or arm or whatever, is very old. The first citation in the Oxford English Dictionary comes from a book written in Latin in the 6th century by Pope Gregory and translated into Old English by King Alfred around the year 897. Alfred’s translation reads, Ic ræhte mine hond to eow (I reach mine hand to you).

From the beginning, as you can see, the word had almost a figurative sense when used in religious writings. Since about the year 1000, “reach” has also been used metaphorically to mean to strive after something, to jump to a conclusion, to extend one’s power or influence, to spread or run into, and so on.

Here’s a citation, using the verb phrase “reach out,” from Henry Hammond’s commentary on the Psalms (1659): “As if by his own right hand from heaven, his holy seat of mansion, he should reach out deliverance to him.”

In the more earthly sense, “reach out,” meaning to offer tangible services or help, dates from the early 20th century. Here’s an example from 1919: “a system of motorized transport which will operate as a public service reaching out to every home.”

In the last half-century, the usage has become a cherished part of the corporate vocabulary, as in this example from 1950: “The old basing point mills, since they can reach out to new markets through freight absorption, tend to overdevelop.” The rest is history.

A related noun, “outreach,” was probably inevitable. The OED‘s entry for “outreach” includes several figurative meanings. One of them uses the word loosely to mean “the area or extent of influence; scope.”

The OED gives this example from the Atlantic Monthly in 1893: “No subject has come up in New Hampshire with a larger outreach, or that more requires far-sighted men to handle it properly.”

Another figurative meaning uses the word loosely for “the action of reaching out.” The OED has an 1859 citation from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel The Minister’s Wooing: “His mind and life were a constant channel of outreach through which her soul held converse with the active and stirring world.”

An 1884 example comes from a collection of sermons by Phillips Brooks, who was an Episcopal bishop in Massachusetts (and the author of the hymn “O Little Town of Bethlehem”): “What a different thing this life and this outreach toward man becomes.”

Later, these figurative uses gave rise to a new sense of “outreach,” specifically meaning an organization’s activity in seeking out, and developing relationships with, outsiders.

The first example cited in the OED is from 1899: “We met many who discovered at once the fundamental principles of sympathy outreach and information underlying and mellowing each department of the Congress.”

And later (1918): “In its natural outreach to control its own trade at home, and under its great necessity to make new trade abroad … it pushes on serenely.”

And to think I always considered “outreach” some new kind of sociobabble. On the contrary, it’s old sociobabble! It certainly doesn’t convey the intimacy or the one-to-one quality its inventors were looking for. Instead, it seems cold and bureaucratic (or, to borrow your own words, “out of place”).

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