Go-to (adj.)

Submitted anonymously

Tony Responds:
You may have noticed that the Jargon Files have by now become the “go-to” source for lexical denunciations of all kinds. Whether it’s jargon or not, if there’s a word that sends a shock through your dental fillings every time you hear it, you’ve come to (well, to preserve our theme, you’ve gone to) the right place.

The modifier “go-to” falls not into the narrow cesspool of jargon, but into the broader swamplands of despised cliché. It occurs in expressions like this: “They’re the go-to consultants for structured strategic visioning” (yes, someone recently spoke those very words, without evident embarrassment). Or: “He’s the go-to source for venomous toads” (in this case the speaker was referring to a well-known executive recruiter, who I hope does not read the Jargon Files). You can’t argue that “go-to” is jargon, really. Its meaning couldn’t be more obvious — which is no doubt why it annoys so many people. It’s not an obscure technical term, it’s just overused, and its popularity is still spreading.

Even so, is it time for us to organize an auto da fe against “go-to”? I have to start with the admission that I consider the phrase too useful for that. I can’t think of any equivalent, brief English expression that captures the same concrete idea. To say “he’s the authority” is not the same thing. One may be a preëminent authority whom few people actually consult (think of Cassandra). In that case, for all your eminence, you’re not the go-to authority. For the same reason, it’s not equivalent to say “they’re the best consultants” because sometimes the best are the least well known, the most obscure, or the most undervalued. The “go-to” authority is the one everyone agrees you must consult, the contractor you must use, the player you must sign up, if you want to stay on top of your game. We don’t have any other short phrase for that.

In a marketplace increasingly fixated on cornering Internet traffic, in a society tantalized by dreams of winner-take-all success, becoming the organization that everyone goes to for something is a genuine, increasingly common ambition. Globalization and e-commerce have made it possible for one outfit to be the world’s “go-to” source for any given area of expertise, to the complete disadvantage of all other sources.

You may not approve of this ambition, or of the kind of global economy in which such ambitions thrive. But that is no reason not to approve of a phrase to describe it. I do not approve of segregation — another term that is comparatively new, Latinate, polysyllabic, and ugly — yet I can’t imagine doing without the word. (Until, perhaps, that happy, far-off day when it has nothing left to describe). Some things are real and prevalent enough so that they need their own descriptions, like them or not.

I realize that I am courting an auto da fe all my own here. But I think the expression ‘go to’ points to a fairly important idea that needs a name. If this particular name seems a little jury-rigged and awkward (as it surely does), that is a good reason to use it only when absolutely necessary. But I think there really are occasions of such necessity. And when an expression is truly needed and has no substitute, there’s no point trying to ban it.

Given the number of people whose dental work is set to throbbing every time someone uses this phrase, I have a feeling I’ve probably made some enemies with this entry. It won’t be long before at least one of them just tells me to, … well, go to.

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