On “Reaching Out”

In a semantics class I took a while back (okay…a long while back), the teacher asked, “How do you think it’s decided which words get into the dictionary?” There are new words—or new uses of them—being coined all the time. So, how exactly do words and their meanings get chosen for the dictionary? Is it a group of linguists determining what will go into each new edition?

The answer was that it all depends on usage. It’s not actually linguists who decide which words are bound for the dictionary—it’s us, just by using the language in our casual lives every day. If there’s enough usage, so to speak, the word or term will make it into the dictionary.

The same goes for meanings of words—and phrases, too. It’s true that language is not static—it changes constantly, and that’s why the dictionary changes.

The term “reach out” is just one example. There was a time when “reaching out” for something or to someone was a term only used for truly making some sort of a connection. It was used more in the terms of “reaching out for help” or “reaching out to someone else.” Usually, there was some profound aspect; it wasn’t just used to refer to communicating in general.

Not long ago, however, I started hearing people say things such as, “I had to reach out and get the office phone number.”


The first time I heard the shift in that term, it was just kind of awkward. It sounded so melodramatic. Now, it’s quite commonplace to hear “I forgot to reach out to make an appointment at the salon,” etc.

Some language does tend to be regional, so it’s possible that the meaning of “reaching out” has not changed everywhere.

Still, anyone who is a “word person” can become really irritated by this type of thing. Suddenly, people start using a term differently or to their liking. Then this improper (or in this case, overdramatic) use spreads, and word people get up in arms over something that is suddenly completely acceptable to the general public.

Even if the change in “reach out” does not bother most people, we all know of some term or word that has had its meaning mysteriously changed. And there are times that word people just hate that!

In response to “Reach.”

More writer ponderings.