Reach out to me at your peril

Donald Clarke: Of all horrible neologisms one stands out, unless you’re a member of the Four Tops

I’m reaching out to ask for your most irritating example of neologistic gibberish. Not things like the increasingly unavoidable “math” for “maths”. Obviously, that is an utter monstrosity, but creeping Americanisms are in a category of their own.

No, I’m inviting you to reach out with usages such as “gift” for “give”. Yes, the word has been used as a verb for centuries, but the current surge is tied up with a tendency to load language with faux sentiment. I am not merely “giving” you this copy of Burt Bacharach’s classic Reach Out album. I am, as the Magi did for baby Jesus, making a gift of it. If you don’t like it you can “regift” it. Then I can poke out my eardrums with a rusty screwdriver.

Here’s something else that may cause you to reach out: the sudden ubiquity of “legacy” as an adjective. Sometimes it’s vaguely insulting. When claptrapists refer to newspapers such as this as “legacy media” they are rarely being kind. There is a suggestion that dear old TV, radio and print have gathered in the function room at Shady Acres for a possibly final game of bingo. Still worse is the use of “legacy cast” to describe actors from the opening film in a movie franchise who survive into the latest, pallid episode. I’m not making this up. “Jurassic World: Dominion sees [Sam] Neill return as Alan Grant alongside other legacy cast members, Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum,” no less a publication than Forbes told us in the run-up to that film’s release. Where is the legacy here? Are the older cast members being passed on to the lucky audience or to the younger actors? Who has died?

Reach out if ...


You know where this is going. Common enough in the United States for a decade or so – where all this stuff begins – “reach out to” has, over the last few years, become an immovable part of our own email lexicon. None of the examples above is quite so consistently irritating. The phrase also appears in texts and on WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger, but it seems most at home in the more venerable form of electronic communication. It would surely break data regulations to quote directly from any recent emails. So, semi-fictionalised versions must suffice. “We at EventCorp thought you might be the person to reach out to in connection with a ground-breaking new live event that finally brings martial arts together with synchronised swimming,” nobody actually wrote. “I am reaching out as a talented young vibraphonist to make you aware of a sterling adventure in percussive fantasia.” That sort of faff.

The words “reach out to” are here essentially standing in for “contact”, but, as is often the case with such linguistic effluent, an attempt is being made to fake an emotional connection. The problem has been around long enough in the United States to generate an amusing comic flow chart. “Is it acceptable for me to use the term ‘reach out’ in the workplace?” the diagram asks. There then appears a diamond-shaped box – indicating a decision – within which appear the words: “Are you a member of the Four Tops?” If “yes” then “It’s acceptable”. If “no” then “stop it immediately”.

Some soulless wonk in the wretched recent past figured out that the use of “reach out” goes some way to implying an existing relationship

All very funny. But the gag really does offer pointers as to what is going on and why the practice remains so preposterous. “If you feel that you can’t go on/ Because all of your hope is gone,” the Tops sing in Reach Out I’ll be There. “And your life is filled with much confusion/ Until happiness is just an illusion ...” And so on before inviting the listener to “reach out”. That is to say, Eddie Holland, legendary lyricist, is associating the phrase with someone in a state of despair seeking assistance from a sympathetic friend or lover.

Some soulless wonk in the wretched recent past figured out that the use of “reach out” goes some way to implying an existing relationship. The correspondent is not someone trying to flog you unwanted tat or inveigle you into a Ponzi scheme. This is someone in a bind looking for assistance from a kindly face. The shoddy trick is also played in reciprocal fashion. “If you are interested, please feel free to reach out to request further information,” a recent email nearly said. What in the name of God is “reach out” doing there? What is wrong with “feel free to request”? Are you saying I am now the one in distress?

None of this does any good. Maybe, when first encountered, the technique lowers your guard for a nanosecond, but modern humans fast become immune to any such linguistic sleight and end up skipping through the words as if they were so much smoke. It becomes just another irritation in a mass of micro-garbage. Do the math.