Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Reaching out: The "NYPD Blue" connection

Nancy Friedman has a terrific treatment of the buzz phrase "reach out" at Visual Thesaurus, to which you should subscribe instantly if not sooner. But in her search for sources of the phrase, she overlooked one that loomed very large in pop culture back when I wrote about "reach out," just a couple of months into my authorship of "The Word" for the Boston Globe.

As I've been through hours of broken-link hell trying to retrieve a copy -- the ProQuest link not only isn't letting subscribers log in, it wouldn't even let me pay five bucks for my own damn column! -- I'm not going to take time to annotate it; there are surely things I would do differently now, but here's what I knew about "reach out" 14 years ago, when I and the Internet were both much greener.

When a cop's reach exceeds his grasp

If they're tuned to our wavelength, the citizens of the universe must picture English-speaking Earthlings as many-armed creatures like the Hindu goddess Kali, or maybe as ambulatory, air-breathing octopuses. What else could explain the amount of reaching out we do these days? Churches reach out to potential members, Newt Gingrich to minority voters, La Leche League members to new mothers.

And while the phrase has been stealthily spreading for decades, it seems likely that it owes its current ubiquity to actor David Caruso -- or, rather, to the TV writers who created his "NYPD Blue" character, Detective John Kelly, back in 1993.

There's nothing wrong with reach, of course, or with out. Both words have been in the language, alone and together, since it was Old English, letting us reach out for the brass ring, the highest apples on the tree, the life preserver thrown from a boat.

But reach out seems to have softened and spread like margarine during the touchy-feely '60s and '70s. The Four Tops had a hit with "Reach Out (I'll Be There)," the Carter administration envisioned a Department of Agriculture that would reach out to consumers, and sex educators were reaching out to adolescents.

AT&T trumped them all, in 1979, with "Reach Out and Touch Someone," one of the most memorable advertising slogans ever written. But the phone company's jingle still hewed to the old-fashioned meaning of the phrase -- it assumed a specific person at the other end of that long distance phone line. The New Age version of reaching out that was growing on us had fuzzier boundaries and less specific goals.

This extended reach out is the verb form of the noun outreach, a coinage (in this sense) of 20th-century bureaucratic minds. The Book of Jargon defines outreach as "digging up end-users when nobody seems to want the 'benefits' of a government enough to apply for them" -- a jaundiced view, maybe, but it captures the newer sense of outreach as an overture made to an amorphous mass of people, not to real, touchable individuals. Barnhart's Dictionary of New English dates this outreach to 1968, and it seems safe to assume that where there was outreach, there was reaching out. But most of us didn't notice how fast it had proliferated till "NYPD Blue" began rubbing our noses in reach out.

For some fans of the TV show, the stock phrase (and the series' other mannerisms and catchphrases) were irritating almost from the start. When Caruso threatened to leave, one reviewer said he would be happy not to hear him "telling people he's going to reach out," as if he were angling for a phone company job. And when his departure was announced, one of the speculative scenarios for the farewell episode had him saying "reach out" once too often and being murdered by partner Andy Sipowicz.

Caruso did leave, but his buzzwords linger on; the boys in "Blue" reach out more than ever, sometimes stretching the phrase to implausible lengths. In an episode last season, Sipowicz rebuked a prostitute offering evidence by saying, more or less, "It's a week already, and you don't reach out till now?"

This is going too far. Surely "turning over evidence" is not a synonym for reaching out, if reaching out means anything at all. "It's become so ubiquitous, you expect them to 'reach out' to the doughnut counter, 'reach out' to swat a bug" complained a reviewer last month.

But if all the reaching out gets you down, there's a quick remedy, prescribed in the "NYPD Blue Drinking Game" devised by Alan Sepinwall and his collaborators (for details, see his "NYPD Blue" site). It's simple: Every time someone says "reach out," you reach for a double Scotch. Soon enough, when they try to reach out to you, you'll be feeling no pain.

(Boston Sunday Globe, September 28, 1997)

1 comment:

Nancy said...

Thanks for the kind words and for sharing your excellent Globe column. I wish I'd seen it when I was researching the VT story.

I admit that I never watched more than one or two episodes of NYPD Blue (and probably not complete episodes at that), so when I encountered "reach out" in an online NYPD Blue lexicon I just said, "Hmm--interesting!" and moved on. http://website.lineone.net/~rmeeks/

In the future, I will reach out to you at the beginning of every research project.