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.”

“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.
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