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Lexical Investigations: Synergy

Though synergy appears in English texts in a general sense as far back as the seventeenth century, it was not widely adopted as a medical term until the mid-nineteenth century. In medical texts from this time, it often appears in italics as a foreign word. In a revealing passage from 1827, the physician W.P. Allison wrote, “I would object to the term synergy, which some have proposed to borrow from the French.” In truth, the word comes from Latin and Greek, and cognates exist in several European languages, such as German (Synergie) and Italian (sinergia).

In 1903, the American sociologist Frank Lester Ward wrote, “there is a universal principle, operating in every department of nature . . . evident to me for many years, but it required long meditation and extensive observation to discover its true nature. After having fairly grasped it I was still troubled to reduce it to its simplest form, and characterize it by an appropriate name. I have at last fixed on the word synergy.” By bestowing a cosmic significance to the word, Ward contributed to a surge in its popularity over the next several years.

Today synergy is a buzz word in business, sometimes called the “2+2=5 effect.” This sense of “success through cooperation” entered English in the 1950s, and its use has surged since then.

Relevant Quotations:
“It is met with in cases in which synergy is wanting, in which the womb may be doing well in one part, while another, which should manifest correspondent functions, in perfectly quiescent.”

–Walter Channing, “Power’s New Principles of Midwifery,” The New-England journal of medicine and surgery: and collateral branches of science, Volume 10 (1821)

“The search is for synergy, the concept under which 2 + 2 = 5, that will allow two businesses to generate more profits together than they could separately.”

“Achieving Synergy,” World Academy Online.

“Observations on the Physiological Principle of Sympathy, chiefly in reference to the peculiar doctrines of Mr Charles Bell,” by W.P. Allison. Edinburgh Journal of Medical Science, Volume 3 Maclachlan and Stewart, 1827

Pure Sociology: a treatise on the origin and spontaneous development of society, by Frank Lester Ward, The Macmillan Company, 1903.

Read our previous post about the word plagiarism.
A motley combination of Anglo-Saxon, Latin, and Germanic dialects, the English language (more or less as we know it) coalesced between the 9th and 13th centuries. Since then, it has continued to import and borrow words and expressions from around the world, and the meanings have mutated. (Awesome and awful once meant nearly the same thing.) Some specimens in the English vocabulary have followed unusually circuitous routes to their place in the contemporary lexicon, and this series, Lexical Investigations, unpacks those words hiding in our midst.

9 Comments

  1. Judi -  June 17, 2013 - 11:56 pm

    Couldn’t find any place in your slide show for this comment, but you should have added one more to the show about words that are easily confused. I found this under the difference between stationary and stationery: “…In the Middle Ages roving peddlers often sold writing supplies, moving their wears from “station” to “station.” I believe if you look closely you’ll find it should have been “wares” rather than “wears”

    Reply
  2. Archon -  June 17, 2013 - 1:47 pm

    @ tina
    Type the words “Bible dictionary” into any search engine. I used Bing, and got over seven million responses. If you want a print copy, visit any high-end bookstore, or their website. You may have to order.

    Reply
  3. Dennis -  June 16, 2013 - 12:37 pm

    In the 1960s, one of the big corporations used “synergy” in commercials aimed at upper-demographic audiences, like the ads that aired during Meet the Press. It’s what we would call institutional advertising today: not really hyping a specific product but the company itself.
    I wish I could remember which company did the ads: it could have been Xerox, IBM, Sperry-Rand.
    I think a lot of the current use of that term in business circles probably stems from those ads in the late 60s.

    Reply
  4. tina -  June 16, 2013 - 10:29 am

    to whom it may concern im trying to find the dictionary for the bible .as i cant read that well could you please help me

    Reply
  5. eric ilechukwu -  June 15, 2013 - 1:14 am

    may be the word synergy has gained most usage in the business circles, where perhaps, it is used as fusion of otherwise unrelated entities for the reason of greater profitability and lesser stress of action.

    Reply
  6. mister knowitall -  June 14, 2013 - 10:20 pm

    2 + 2 = 5
    duh. this has been known since before the beginning of history
    the word is TRADE.
    the word SYNERGY is just jargon

    Reply
  7. col bb -  June 13, 2013 - 5:59 pm

    Buckminster Fuller was a frequent user of synergy. He gave it an almost mystical meaning in his writings and talks.

    Reply
    • JCC -  September 12, 2015 - 8:38 am

      Bucky Fuller was my first introduction to the word synergy, long before it became a buzzword in business. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if his constant use of the term was the derivation of modern usage as at buzzword.

      Reply
  8. ed martinez -  June 13, 2013 - 7:51 am

    On a different subject, the Basque language is still in search of its origin. One hypothesis proposed it derived from language spoken during Roman times in Georgia (once part of the Soviet Union) by a garrison of soldiers stationed in the British Isles who settled there after their tour of duty was completed. Has anyone done any maternal DNA to check if at all probable?

    Reply

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