The program seeks to assist seniors in accessing appropriate services,” says an earnest nonprofit’s brochure (mercifully shielding the impressionable elders from accessing anything inappropriate). Elsewhere, a policy paper blames one community’s high rates of unemployment on a widespread “failure to access the full array of available supports.”

“It should be possible,” asserts an otherwise thoughtful report on public housing, “for residents to access education, employment, and training opportunities through an on-site office or service designed for them.” The mammoth popularity of the verb TO ACCESS in civic and foundation circles might strike some people as perverse, given that it is both ugly and vague. The ugliness may, admittedly, be just a matter of taste. But the vagueness is beyond dispute. Yet that may be the very reason why the word seems to turn up just about everywhere.

When you describe people’s ability “to access health care,” as several foundations are apt to do, are you talking about their ability to get to the clinic or hospital? And if so, would that be a reference to the availability of public transportation, the distance involved, or the difficulty of navigating the building in a wheelchair? Might you instead be referring to patients’ ability to get insurance to pay for services? Their knowledge of what services to use? The availability of a specialist who can treat their problem? The availability of doctors or nurses who speak their language? Their ability to get enough attention from overburdened professionals?

Depending on where you’re working, and with whom, access could mean any of these things. Or all of them. The word is most often nothing more than a stand-in for “get” — as in, “people can’t get decent health care around here.

So why not just say “get” or “get to”? One reason, no doubt, is that the simple Saxon “get” is simply passé. But there is surely something a bit worse going on here: Using such a generic word as “get” would make it obvious to any sixth-grader that the writer is not saying anything special or profound. A program that helps seniors or unemployed people “get services” would hardly sound remarkable, and would provoke in any curious reader the natural question, “Get services how?” The forbiddingly Frenchified Latin of ACCESS doesn’t answer that question any better, but it quiets the reader with a promise of implied wisdom and erudition. Unfortunately, the promise is illusory. On close inspection, the word is all but meaningless.

The cure for verbal ills like ACCESS is not just to stick with old words (although “get” has earned the distinction of being useful to English speakers since at least 100 years before Chaucer was born). The solution is to say more precisely what kind of access you want to discuss — questions of location? transportation? price? quality? supply?–and use words, whether new or old, that zero in on those concerns. Anything else will draw solemn nods of approval from people within the philanthropic inner circle and little more than blank stares from everyone else.

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