“Fit for/to purpose”

Lynne Murphy has published an interesting post on this phrase, the original version of which is with the “for.” It’s a Britishism which the OED defines as “suitable for the intended use; fully capable of performing the required task.” The dictionary has an 1861 citation but that appears to be an outlier, and the next is from a 1953 book about industrial operations: “Small-scale operation is multiplied when rival producers continually devise new designs which may or may not be fit for purpose.”

The phrase took off in Britain in the 1990s and aughts, as this Ngram Viewer chart shows.

I didn’t bother to look for it in American sources because it’s such an outlier here. The phrase has appeared in the New York Times sixty-one times, but said by British sources or written by British writers virtually always, one exception being in 2021, when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said Emergent BioSolutions “facilities were ‘fit for purpose and in a state of compliance.'”

But Lynne has found that Americans have taken to using an altered version of the phrase that seems to mean the same thing: “fit to purpose.” It’s a phenomenon we’ve seen before, for example in Americans changing “can’t be arsed” to “can’t be asked.”

Lynne reproduces this tweet, sent in by one of her readers:

And she says she’s found other examples of American “fit to purpose” on Twitter. It’s a trend that bears watching.

5 thoughts on ““Fit for/to purpose”

  1. The phrase “fit for” purpose has been implied into contracts for the purchase of goods since at least 1893. Section 14, Sale of Goods Act 1893 addresses “quality or fitness for” purpose. As the Act codified the pre-existing law, there would be references to this implied term in legal texts and reports prior to that date (although I haven’t searched for them (yet)). The Act has been updated several times, and this requirement is currently embodied in the Consumer Rights Act 2015.

  2. Since “can’t be asked” makes no sense I wonder if, rather than being misheard, it is an example of a word being changed for the sake of politeness – like cock being replaced by rooster?
    “Fit for purpose” has been overused by politicians and journalists in the UK whenever an institution can be blamed for something rather than naming individuals. The legal sense of the phrase goes back a very long way.

    1. As regards the use of the phrase by politicians, my earliest recollection was it being used by John Reid to describe the state of the Home Office (as not fit for purpose) when he was Home Secretary in the mid-noughties.

  3. The phrase “fit for their ordinary purpose” appears in the Unifom Commercial Code, which borrowed heavily from the Sale of Goods Act I beleive.

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