Targeting

To those who nowadays consider the verb TO TARGET indispensable in all contexts, it will come as some surprise that the current sense of the verb did not exist until the 1970s, the decade that also gave us Debbie Boone and the energy crisis. The 1969 edition of the American Heritage Dictionary lists “target” solely as a noun.

The Oxford English Dictionary’s 1971 edition lists only the antiquated meanings of “shielded” or “marked for execution.” Then sometime in the Nixon and Carter years, TARGETING blasted out of the Pentagon like a runaway rocket and landed smack in the fad-making salons of Madison Avenue. It’s been ubiquitous ever since.

TARGETING illustrates a kind of Gresham’s Law6 of jargon: Bad words drive good words out of circulation. The popularity of TARGETING has all but obliterated the nice old-fashioned Saxon word “aiming,” largely because the newer word sounds more complicated (and, not incidentally, more military). Those who like their writing to seem tough and imposing will always prefer three bellicose syllables over two quiet ones. Thus the cumbersome neologism nudges out the plain, easy word every time.

Yet apart from its pseudo-military cachet, TARGETING offers hardly any improvement over “aiming.” It does, admittedly, lend itself to the adjective TARGETED-as in the many “targeted populations” who have become metaphorical bull’s-eyes for the guided missiles of modern philanthropy. But TARGETED is an inherently ambiguous word: When you aim a sharp projectile at someone (your “target population,” you might say), which one has been TARGETED? The projectile or the intended victim? The fact is, the word is sloppy enough to mean both things at once.

Do we need TARGETING and TARGETED? In the typical sentence, “Services are targeted at three populations,” it’s clear that “aimed” would do very nicely. But what to do with the sentence “Target populations include inner-city youth, the homeless, and those leaving the criminal-justice system.” Here, the word “target” is actually fine-but in its original form and sense. It’s a noun, and should be used that way. “The program’s targets are inner-city youth, the homeless, etc.” The verb is not only avoidable most of the time, but actually inferior to the simpler alternatives.

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