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This ostentatious word means nothing more than “working together.” It’s just the Greek prefix syn-, meaning “together,” stuck onto the word for “work,” ergon (which gave us the recent coinage ergonomics ). It can apply just as perfectly to ham-and-rye or bat-and-ball as to more ethereal stuff. There’s absolutely nothing occult about it.

So why is it whispered all over philanthropy in the awestruck tones normally reserved for exorcisms? Apparently because those who use the word believe (or maybe wish to pretend) that they are invoking some sort of powerful mystical fusion, something understood only by Tibetan monks and particle physicists. The dispiriting reality is that they are simply substituting an ancient Greek word for more common, and better understood, English ones, like “cooperation” or “common effort.”

We take the charitable view that those who use SYNERGY this way are unaware of the false pretenses under which it travels. They are, we presume, hapless victims of a lexical confidence scheme. The author of the following sentence, for instance, would no doubt wish to have received a timely nudge in the ribs before committing this absurdity to paper: “A second benefit of this venture will be the synergies it produces in the cultural, political, and social climate of the surrounding community.” Can’t you just see the acolytes readying incense and rose petals for this impending ritual of climatic metamorphosis?

Likewise, someone should have warned the author of this one: “The program has excelled in synergizing the efforts of other community institutions around the community center.” This bears all the marks of something out of a Kung Fu movie: Come forward, nimble warrior, and be synergized if you dare.

Finally: “The goal of this partnership will be to take advantage of synergies with health care and educational institutions.” You have to wonder whether that sentence originally said, “We’re going to work with hospitals and schools,” and someone told the author to make it a bit more … professional.


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