“Foundations engage with faith-based institutions,” a senior foundation officer wrote, “in many ways and for many reasons.” “We will need further advocacy,” said another, “to engage the resources of the public sector on this issue.” “Someone needs to engage with the issue of developmental disabilities,” someone else wrote in a memo on education reform.

What kind of person uses ENGAGE this way? Military commanders do — but presumably most foundation officers aren’t contemplating the kind of lethal engagement typical of the battlefield. Social workers and psychiatrists may, when people withdraw and refuse to interact with others, try to “engage” them in the same sense that some of these writers evidently intended. In those lines of work, the word conveys an effort to make a connection, elicit a response, forge some kind of bond. But unless the writers actually come from one of those fields (a possibility), their use of ENGAGEMENT as a synonym for “speak to” or “grapple with” seems little more than insider code. It carries an unintentionally revealing hint of lonely supplication, a plea for connection, a plaintive yearning for some kind of contact with others.

The real problem, however, is not in the impression the word gives, but in the impressions it fails to give. Divorced from its therapeutic context, it could mean nearly anything at all — and one can hardly escape the suspicion that the writers being quoted had little idea what sort of “engagement” they actually had in mind. (The Oxford English Dictionary lists 19 different definitions for the verb TO ENGAGE, of which all but three are still in common use.) “Work with,” “solicit,” and “grapple with” might be possible synonyms of ENGAGE in the examples cited here. But even those words leave open volumes of interpretation. In truth, all three of the quoted sentences literally mean nothing more than “someone doing something with someone else.” The something to be done is left entirely to the imagination — or to the implicit understanding of the other members of the club.

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