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Everyone has targets — figurative ones, anyway. But the British government was recently reported as having set 2,500 of them since coming to power in 1997, which seems a bit excessive.

When targets were tangible things, all you could do was hit them, or — perhaps more often — miss them. But when the word moved out of the literal field into the intangible arena of management, new verbs became attached to it. Now we can set targets, or reach them, or meet them, or even exceed them. Some of the targets we set are tough ones, or ambitious ones. On occasion they aren’t even single points but target ranges, which have nothing to do with shooting ranges, where one may find the corporeal sort of targets.

Historically, a target is a small targe. The latter was an ancient word for the light shield carried by those who needed something easy to lug around. Archers had them, and so did other fighters on foot. Though the word is recorded in Old English as either targe or targa — it was Germanic in origin, from a word that meant a frame — its popularity seems to have been reinforced after the Norman Conquest by the French form targe — French had borrowed the word earlier, most probably from the Franks. Naturally, the English came to say the word the same way the French did, with a soft g, to rhyme with large. Target, a word for a little shield, was created in French, so it, too, had the soft g to start with. It only changed to our modern pronunciation sometime around the fifteenth century.

But in all this time, and for three hundred years afterwards, target referred only to a shield. Our modern meaning of a device to aim at only arrived in the eighteenth century, just too late for the good Doctor Johnson to include it in his dictionary. (It’s first recorded in 1757, two years after the dictionary was published).

What then did archers and their like aim at in all the centuries before then? It turns out that the older term was mark, which is recorded from the beginning of the thirteenth century. This was originally a boundary (a variant is march, as in the Welsh Marches for the border between Wales and England), then it became the word for a boundary marker such as a natural feature (as in landmark) or a stone or post. The idea of a mark as a thing to aim at seems to have developed from this. It was something much more substantial than our modern idea of a mark as some visible indication or sign.

The figurative sense of target seems to have arisen around the middle of the nineteenth century, at first for a person at whom abuse or scorn was aimed. The idea of a target as an objective or goal dates only from the 1940s. The verb appeared about 1600, but then it meant to protect oneself from a blow, by using a target in the shield sense; later it took on the idea of using someone as a (figurative) target for abuse. Only in the late 1940s did it become management-speak for planning to achieve a financial or other business objective.

But perhaps there’s writing on the wall for over-users of the word. The Labour government now prefers performance indicators to targets. It’s a bit of a mouthful, but for clarity’s sake even this bureaucratic construction makes a refreshing change.

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Page created 22 Jan 2000; Last updated 05 Feb 2000