A phrase fit for purpose?

The second post from my recent stint at Macmillan Dictionary Blog is about the expression fit for purpose. It hasn’t gained much currency in U.S. English, and I’d be surprised if it did, but in Britain it became so popular so quickly that the Guardian style guide criticised it as a cliché “unfit for the purpose of good writing”. I describe fit for purpose as a newcomer to the catchphrase arena,

with hardly any hits in the main British and American corpora. According to lexicographer John Ayto, it had occasional metaphorical use in British English in the early 21st century. Then, in 2006, the British Home Secretary John Reid described the Immigration and Nationality Directorate system as “not fit for purpose”. Given the newsworthiness of this statement, it’s no surprise that the expression’s profile and range subsequently grew

Elsewhere in the post, I discuss the sudden spread of the phrase and the inevitable broadening of its usage, before assessing its fitness for purpose and suggesting a few alternatives. The rest is here. You might also enjoy Michael Rundell’s subsequent post about how “linguists and lexicographers have been using corpus data to learn about the behaviour of words” (and phrases), including fit for purpose.

8 Responses to A phrase fit for purpose?

  1. o north says:

    The expression is novel only in elision of the article. “Fit for the purpose” is a petrified legal expression going back at least 250 years. See
    http://www.google.com/archivesearch?q=fit+for+the+purpose&btnG=Search+Archives&scoring=t

  2. Sean Jeating says:

    … and then there are sinister organisations calling themselves ‘Common Purpose’.

  3. wisewebwoman says:

    I automatically think of livestock when I hear the phrase and then I think can it be applied to humans? Job descriptions?
    “The chef was not fit for purpose.”
    Then again, I can riff off on anything…
    XO
    WWW

  4. Stan says:

    o north: Well, yes. And it’s the elision that gives it its brusque, administrative air. But many of the results in your link feature not fit for the purpose but fit for purpose, fit and proper for such purpose, or some such phrase, or just fit and purpose on the same page. To search specifically for fit for the purpose, it’s necessary to use inverted commas around the phrase.

    Sean: I don’t know anything about these organisations, but the name seems loaded with presumption.

    WWW: This suggests the estranging effect of some forms of language. One of the most memorable examples I’ve come across is OB products used to refer to newborn babies.

  5. I worked for the Home Office at the time of Reid’s comment. Even if it had been aimed at IND it was not particularly well received by other parts of the Department.

    He had to go on a big in-house charm offensive after those words. Rather difficult as he was not exactly full of charm or grace!

  6. Stan says:

    That’s interesting, Jams. I’m not surprised Reid’s remark didn’t go down so well around him. No doubt he intended his words to be constructive and effective, but he probably didn’t expect the expression to gather so much momentum, and to be so strongly associated with governmental incompetence.

  7. John Cowan says:

    Although (un)fit for purpose is alien to me, (un)fit for use is not, especially in the negative. The rules about omitting English articles are very odd.

  8. Stan says:

    That’s an interesting observation, John. I wonder if newspaper headlines affect our perception of (and feelings about) article omission.

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