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 BagnallReuse content