The picture is complicated by the spread of various "Englishes" around the world. Curiously, around the time specimens of Solanum lycopersicum were crossing the Atlantic one way, a subset of Brits with shaky pronunciation skills was crossing it the other way. It was the beginning of a confusion that could only get worse with time: as Oscar Wilde was already putting it in 1887, we really have everything in common with America these days, except, of course, language. You say /təˈmeɪtoʊ/ but you are so wrong.
Of course, differences in meaning are more profound than mere pronunciation. It was recently pointed out to me that to "frown" is, to an American, an expression primarily involving the use of the corners of the mouth, whereas in Britain it is all to do with the eyebrows and forehead. Which is weird, to say the least. Which brings me to my real point. Back in 1966, when songs were songs and trousers were trousers, the Four Tops had a hit on both sides of the Atlantic with "Reach Out (I'll Be There)".
Now if you feel that you can't go onThe passionate soul-shout of lead singer Levi Stubbs is full of desperate yearning, as if he's shouting through a wild storm to a drowning girl: reach out, come on girl, reach on out for me! Like so many of those mid-sixties Motown hits, it's a little jewel, where all the parts – words, music, performance, and, yes, even the trousers – just fit, perfectly.
Because all of your hope is gone
And your life is filled with much confusion
Until happiness is just an illusion
And your world around is crumblin' down
Darling, reach out, come on girl, reach on out for me
Reach out, reach out for me
I'll be there, with a love that will shelter you
I'll be there, with a love that will see you through.
So imagine my amusement, the first time I called an American customer support line, to be told that the relevant engineer would reach out to me that very afternoon. I was well aware of the taste for hyperbole in the language of business, Stateside, but this was genuinely OTT. The image of myself floundering in the waters of Unix confusion, waiting to be saved by the extended hand of a software specialist dangling perilously from a cable lowered from a rescue helicopter, was truly hysterical. I went around telling colleagues about it, the way you do.
Until someone said, no, that's just American for "get in touch". What, really? No stretched-out arms, no desperate measures, no heightened emotional pitch? You mean Levi Stubbs is just saying: get in touch, preferably during office hours, I assume you have my number? I don't believe you!
But I've seen it used so frequently now, in so many different contexts, that I have to believe it. I suppose it may hinge on the preposition: reach out for, versus reach out to. But this is, uh, reaching out for straws. It really does seem that "to reach out" is American for "get in touch". Or, at least, it is now. Which makes me frown, English-style...
So, help me out here, my American friends. Is "reach out" a standard usage of long-standing, or is it some absurd, voguish hyperventilation, similar to "leverage" or "out of the loop", perpetrated by the business community on our beloved language? I'm reaching out to you!