Words: Target

You can hardly get half-way down a newspaper column these days without coming across a target. David Blunkett is going to raise targets for the GCSE, I read. The Department of Health is setting confidential "target profit levels" for the pharmaceutical industry; cricketers set their opponents impossible targets; hoodlums are targeting Rolex-owners; music retailers are advised to "target the baby boomer market", and alcopops are reported to be "targeted at the evergrowing drugs culture". Targeting levels have never been higher.

None of this has anything to do with the "shield-like structure marked with concentric rings" (as defined by the OED, reminding us that a target was originally a small targe or buckler), at which archers have been shooting since the 18th century. We have a dead metaphor on our hands. Its condition was already giving concern back in 1954. "Targets", wrote Sir Ernest Gowers in that year, "have got completely out of control. We must regard the life of this metaphor as having been as short as it certainly has been merry, and treat it as dead", though he still cringed at headlines like "Export Target Hit" (meaning, properly speaking, that it wasn't) and only reluctantly accepted "Target in Danger".

I wonder what he would make of it now. It's easy enough to forget about archery and accept target as a simple noun meaning a goal or objective. Gowers quotes a correspondent complaining that it's wrong to talk about a dauntingly large target since "the bigger the target the easier it is to hit", but we don't mind that any more. The verb, however, is all over the place. In the case of the above baby boomer market the target is still the object aimed at, but the "targeted" alcopops are not the target - they're the missiles used to hit the market with. "There is no hope of checking the astonishing antics of target," wrote Sir Ernest.

He would be more astonished today.

Nicholas Bagnall