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A means to an end

Posted by ESC on February 07, 2006

In Reply to: A means to an end posted by Smokey Stover on February 06, 2006

: : What is the meaning of the phrase "a means to an end"?

: "Means" has more than one meaning. Here it means, approximately, a way to accomplish your goal. More comprehensively, the Oxford English Dictionary says, in regard to "means" used in this way: "[Means] 2. a. An instrument, agency, method, or course of action employed to attain some object or bring about some result. Often used predicatively (of persons as well as things), in to be the means (occas. also mean) of. Freq. in phrases with end (see END n. 14a); means to an end: any action, behaviour, or object considered in terms of its results rather than in terms of its value, ethicality, etc., in and of itself; (also) the method by which any specific object is attained." The last, simplest, statement, after "(also)", is the meaning you will find most useful and easiest to understand. The word "end" is used in your phrase to mean "aim, purpose, intended result"; desired object or objective is another way of saying it. SS

And a related phrase:

END JUSTIFIES THE MEANS -- "The Greek playwright Sophocles wrote in Electra (c 409 B.C.), 'The end excuses any evil,' a thought later rendered by the Roman poet Ovid as 'The result justifies the deed' in 'Heroides' (c. 10 B.C.)." From "Wise Words and Wives' Tales: The Origins, Meanings and Time-Honored Wisdom of Proverbs and Folk Sayings Olde and New" by Stuart Flexner and Doris Flexner (Avon Books, New York, 1993).

: Another source explains the phrase as meaning: "Anything is acceptable if it leads to a successful result." First use in the United States: "Diary" by Michael Wigglesworth (1631-1705), American clergyman and poet. "The means justify the end" is a variation. From "Random House Dictionary of Popular Proverbs and Sayings" by Gregory Y. Titelman (Random House, New York, 1996).