If you want to stir up interest in your blog post or online article, start a discussion about "corporate jargon we all hate" or "buzzwords to be banished." Your readers will oblige with a flood of submissions: "best practices," "value proposition," "change agent," "metrics," and so on. Eventually, and inevitably, someone will offer up a verb phrase that, to innocent ears, sounds like ordinary English: reach out. And the yelps of outraged affirmation will commence.

From Inc. magazine: "It makes my skin crawl when someone uses the euphemism [sic], 'reach out,' as in, 'we wanted to reach out to you making you aware of our new product' or 'we've reached out to John Doe to join us for our meeting on the 30th.' Ugh!"

From Bnet.com: "Every time a prospective vendor tells me they are calling to 'reach out' to me I have to bite my tongue to keep from telling them to keep their hands to themself [sic]."

And from AskTheManager, a business blog: "The image of someone reaching out to us is more than a little creepy. ... [L]eaders should use: Contact."

What is it about reach out that makes so many people retch? Why do they think it's jargon, a euphemism, "unnecessarily complicated," "useless verbiage," or "a dramatic way of saying a very mundane thing"? Why, when thanked for "reaching out," did a tetchy reachee respond: "Did not reach out; contacted you, wrote, dropped by. Arms still at sides metaphorically and literally."

Although the animus is hard to explain — and although, as we'll see, contact has a tainted history of its own — the reasons for reach out's steady rise are easier to, well, grasp. For one thing, reach out  fills a need that isn't addressed by any synonym. "The prime minister reached out to members of the opposition party" may mean that he phoned, emailed, or wrote letters — or it may mean all of that and more. What's suggested by reach out are the intent and the effort.

As for why reach out has become more widespread (the Google Ngram shows a steady rise in usage beginning around 1970), I've identified three factors: popular music, a long-running ad campaign, and Marshall McLuhan. More about those influencers in a bit. First, though, try to overcome your aversion while we take a closer look at the phrase itself.

Reach out doesn't fit the pattern of other widely loathed business words. It isn't one of the -izes (e.g., incentivize, monetize, productionalize). It isn't a neologism (user-centric, near-shoring, proactive). It isn't borrowed from a specialized vocabulary (bandwidth, Six Sigma, synergy). It isn't misleading (actionable, conquesting, agile, and other words I discussed in a 2010 Candlepower column, "Weird Words from the Corporatese Lexicon").

On the contrary: reach and out are two of the oldest, commonest words in the language. Both have Old English roots, and reach has had figurative meanings — "to understand," "to arrive at a destination or goal" — for centuries. Far-reaching, to mean "extensive," was first recorded in 1824 ("the dusky heath far-reaching"); overreaching speech appeared in print in 1579. And reach out in the sense of "communicate with" is at least a century old; the OED gives this 1912 example: "Groups and agencies which are planning to reach out to low-income families with educational efforts in the area of sound family life." Note, too, that we use many other tactile words in figurative senses: Our feelings can be hurt, we're seized by terror, a story touches us.

But apparently it's one thing to hear Robert Browning's "Ah, a man's reach should exceed his grasp/Or what's a heaven for?" and quite another to open an email from a colleague and read, "Let's reach out to Sales for feedback." It's not the message; it's the corporate medium that contaminates reach out.

English speakers, and especially Americans, have long had a love-hate affair with the language of commerce. In 1909 the American writer Ambrose Bierce, best known for The Devil's Dictionary, published a usage guide, Write It Right; in her annotated edition of the book, published in 2009, language columnist Jan Freeman wrote that Bierce was "especially sensitive to money-related language; he invented reasons to dislike even 'pay a visit' and 'spend time.'" Bierce insisted that in the figurative expression "I take no stock in it," stock was "disagreeably commercial." Bierce preferred faith.

Bierce was silent on reach out, which may have been waiting in the wings during his lifetime. But the word many 21st-century critics would substitute for reach out was once as despised as "run a company" and "spend time." That word is contact, which the OED tells us was originally an American colloquialism. It was first documented in the sense of "get in touch with" in 1927, but it was still controversial enough in 1966 that an entry in Wilson Follett's Modern American Usage included this caveat:

If in doubt, contact your physician — this locution is as natural to the American of thirty as it is grotesque to the American of sixty, for whom the idea of surfaces touching is the essence of contact. The elderly can therefore see no fitness and no use for the word in its new sense, when the vocabulary already provides consult, ask, approach, get in touch with, confer with, and simply see.

Forty-five years later, the contact-haters have presumably gone to their final repose, and a new generation has seized on reach out as a grotesquerie. What happened? A few things.

Pop song lyrics, for one.  In 1966, the Motown group The Four Tops had a #1 hit with "Reach Out (I'll Be There)"; in the lyrics, "reach out" is both literal and figurative. Then, four years later, the pop diva Diana Ross recorded "Reach Out and Touch (Somebody's Hand)," her first single as a solo performer. A modest hit when it was released, the song became an anthem when Ross performed it in concerts: the singer would ask audience members to "reach out" to their neighbors and touch hands.

But what really turned reach out into a popular idiom — not to mention an earworm — was an ad campaign developed by the N.W. Ayer agency for AT&T.

Source: Porticus

Michael J. Arlen, whose 1979 New Yorker articles about that campaign were later published as a book, Thirty Seconds, quoted an Ayer executive, Jeffrey Pfiffner, as saying that AT&T wanted "to overcome the negative emotions associated with long-distance ... the high cost of long-distance, the bad news in the middle of the night. ... AT&T wanted us to emphasize the casual, positive aspect: long-distance is fun, it's easy, it's cheap." Two slogans were tested: "Keep in Touch, America," and "Reach Out and Touch Someone." The final vote went to "Reach Out," Pfiffner said, "because the consensus seemed to be was that if there was one thing America didn't need at that time it was more America-oriented advertising." Pfiffner went on:

I guess you could say I came up with the basic line, though when you work in a group you get a lot of input from everyone else. The thing about writing theme lines is that, creatively speaking, they almost never just happen when you sit down at the typewriter — not like body copy. Sometimes, though, they come up and surprise you, and that's where the magic is.

Pfiffner may have taken the credit, but the spark came from outside the agency. In the middle of the 20th century, the Canadian-born media philosopher Marshall McLuhan posited that audio and video communications had "tactile power": "With telephone and TV it is not so much the message as the sender that is 'sent'," he wrote. McLuhan supplemented his teaching income with speaking engagements at IBM, AT&T, and other technology companies, where he lectured on the meaning of media. In an email, McLuhan's son Eric told me although the details were "hazy," he recalled "Dad's advising someone that the telephone would extend touch (as in 'contact')." In fact, Porticus, a website devoted to memories of the Bell system, credits Marshall McLuhan with creating the "Reach Out and Touch Someone" tagline.

So in this, the centennial of McLuhan's birth, I propose that we make peace with reach out. It's a fine idiom with history, etymology, and metaphor on its side. And, of course, it has that jingle — famously sung by Phoebe Snow, Roberta Flack, Ray Charles, Jose Feliciano, Tammy Wynette, and Paul Williams. And now, perhaps, by you.

Reach out, reach out, and touch someone!
Reach out, call up, and just say hi!
Reach out, reach out, and touch someone!
Wherever you are,
You're never too far.
They're waiting to share your day.
People from coast to coast,
Calling up friends to keep them close.
Families who care so much,
Keeping in touch —
Reach out, reach out, and touch someone!
Reach out, reach out, and touch someone!