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Last updated at 19:20 GMT, Tuesday, 09 November 2010

Fit for purpose


John Ayto explains the origin, meaning and use of the expression 'fit for purpose'.

A man fixing a computer

Fit for purpose

Are you fit for purpose? That's a question that seems to be being asked about nearly everything and everyone these days, so you'd better have your answer ready.

This rather prim phrase began life in the field of consumer protection law, characterizing a manufactured product that does what it was designed to do. The implication for the consumer is that if something isn’t fit for purpose, you can take it back and get a refund or a replacement.

The expression was occasionally used metaphorically in British English in the early 21st century, but what really made a wider public aware of it here was the announcement in 2006 by John Reid, the newly appointed British Home Secretary, that his government department was 'not fit for purpose' – meaning that it was no good at doing its job. That unprecedented criticism hit the headlines, and opened the way for the use of 'fit for purpose' in an almost unlimited range of applications.

A recent random search I did turned up buildings, budgets, educational courses, streetlights, railway stations, hostels for the homeless, acts of parliaments, cattle sheds, soldiers, soil and washbasins, all described as fit for purpose – or, more often than not, as not fit for purpose. So, perhaps it's time for you to ask yourself, 'Is my English fit for purpose?'

About John Ayto

John Ayto

John Ayto is a lexicographer and a writer on words and language. He began his dictionary career as one of the editors of the first edition of the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, and over the past twenty years he has produced a range of his own books on the history and use of words, including the Bloomsbury Dictionary of Word Origins, the Oxford Dictionary of Modern Slang and Twentieth-Century Words, a survey of the new words that came into the English language during the twentieth century. He edited the 17th edition of Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, and he has broadcast extensively on lexical matters.