As you know from last Wednesday’s post on ‘man-words’, Stan Carey is the first in a series of guest bloggers who will be contributing to our blog for two weeks at a time until Christmas. The first of their posts will be on the subject of ‘Global English’ and the second will look at the ways that you (users) search Macmillan Dictionary. Stan, a freelance writer and editor living in the west of Ireland, is not completely new to this blog: he has previously written a post here about the word smithereens. He also writes on his own blog, Sentence First.
Fit for purpose was one of the top UK searches on Macmillan Dictionary in October. Here’s a brief look at its history and usage.
The adjective fit has several meanings; the one that applies here is: “of a good enough standard for someone or something”. The relevant sense of the noun purpose is: “the aim that … something is intended to achieve”. So something that’s fit for purpose is, plainly put:
good enough to do the job it was designed to do
The phrase is associated with consumer protection law. If buyers are guaranteed that an item is fit for purpose, but it isn’t, then they may be entitled to a refund or replacement.
Fit for purpose is a newcomer to the catchphrase arena, with hardly any hits in the main British and American corpora. According to lexicographer John Ayto, it had occasional metaphorical use in British English in the early 21st century. Then, in 2006, the British Home Secretary John Reid described the Immigration and Nationality Directorate system as “not fit for purpose”. Given the newsworthiness of this statement, it’s no surprise that the expression’s profile and range subsequently grew (especially in certain countries).
As a sound bite, (not) fit for purpose carries a brisk, authoritative air. It’s especially popular in the negative: an online search shows all sorts of things described and reported as “not fit for purpose”, including computers, televisions, hospitals, homeless shelters, kennels, banking systems, healthcare systems, biometric passports, the economy, the EU, the Football Association, the Magistrates’ Association, and even John Reid himself.
Indeed, fit for purpose became so common so quickly that the Guardian style guide described it as “a recent cliché that quickly proved itself unfit for the purpose of good writing”. This doesn’t mean fit for purpose is not sometimes fit for purpose, but you might want to consider alternative expressions: that something meets expectations, meets the required standards, is of sufficient quality, is good enough, and so on.
It’s revealing that among the most popular synonym searches on Macmillan Dictionary last month were one size fits all, go-to guy, and double-edged sword. Each of these can also be considered a cliché, and some of the searches were probably attempts to avoid resorting to hackneyed expressions whose overfamiliarity might irritate readers or listeners. What do you think – is fit for purpose fit for purpose?Email this Post