How does ‘impact’ impact you?

Posted by on November 02, 2011

Impact is part of the core vocabulary of English, ranking as a three-star red word in Macmillan Dictionary. Yet it is subject to constant dispute and ire, appearing frequently in lists of pet peeves and inspiring lengthy discussions in usage dictionaries. Why is this?

The noun first denoted a physical strike or collision, such as the impact of a meteorite; the verb impact and adjective impacted are older still, dating at least to the early 17th century. Then the word took on figurative meanings – as words tend to do – conveying influence or effect. In recent decades these usages surged in popularity, attracting criticism as they spread.

Many years ago, while doing research for a medical company, I began to hear impact used often as a figurative verb both transitively (“the decision impacts us all”) and intransitively (“it will impact on future sales”) where I would have expected affect, influence, impinge on or similar. I developed a distaste for the usage – to me it was inflationary corporatese.

Michael Rundell, in a comment to my post on webinar, says our response to a word may be “coloured by the circumstances in which we first heard it … this ‘primes’ us to think of it in a particular way.” This idea, he writes, is addressed by Michael Hoey’s theory of lexical priming, which contends that “as we acquire vocabulary it becomes loaded with the contexts (linguistic, generic and social) in which we repeatedly encounter it”.

Hoey describes it as a kind of “subconscious noticing” of the many different aspects of how a word is used. This information, once absorbed, influences (you might say impacts) our feelings about the word, and how and whether we use it. Thus was my reaction to impact shaped in part by the environment in which I heard it.

I’m not alone in rejecting impact for sounding like management speak – the usage note at American Heritage shows the extent of lingering hostility. Presumably, most of the usage panel would recoil from this charity sign I recently read about: “Help impact a child, donate your vehicle”, which for me conjures up dreadful images.

While I don’t plan to adopt these usages, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with them. Objections on grammatical grounds are baseless; so are complaints based on newness, since the usages are old. All are well-established now, though not in literary texts. Bill Brohaugh goes so far as to celebrate the verbing of this “poster child of a supposedly rapidly deteriorating language”.

We have a tendency to generalise from our feelings, leaping too easily from “I dislike this usage” to “This is wrong” or even “No one should ever say this anywhere.” It’s natural that we would want to universalise our preferences, but it’s not very reasonable or practical. Better to examine why we might object to a legitimate word. This can have a surprising impact.

Email this Post Email this Post
Comments (7)
  • The use of impact as a verb(either transitive or intransitive), hasn’t impacted me very much, although, as an editor, I always tried to impact my reporters with a desire to avoid bureaucratise in all its manifest forms. I did this by taking their input, revising the throughput and approving the output before I put it on the page to assess its impact. Long story short, to err hypersensitively on the use of jargon(even when the word in question is old, accepted, and not perceived as such by the lexicographic community), is probably better than the alternative; what I don’t know is, what impact my opinion will effect on such an impactful subject.

    Posted by Marc Leavitt on 2nd November, 2011
  • I find it interesting that I have varying levels of acceptance for different forms of the word. Impact as a noun, as in “have an impact”, sounds pretty much fine to me. But as a verb, as in “impact a child”, sounds awful, and “impacted” as a participial adjective has some unfortunate medical connotations, as I wrote about here a few years back.

    Posted by Jonathon on 2nd November, 2011
  • Marc: You certainly seem at ease with impact in all its many modern guises. As far as I know (i.e., not having investigated beyond checking a few ngrams and reading a few usage notes), the censured forms of impact became popular in AmE quite a few years before BrE. So you got a head start.

    Jonathon: This is something that struck me too, and your varying degrees of acceptance largely mirror my own. Thanks for the link. I’m fine with have an impact, but impacted suggests dental woe (or worse) to me, and I steer clear of the transitive verb. It would make an interesting survey, with enough numbers.

    Posted by Stan on 2nd November, 2011
  • […] It’s Subcultural English Month at Macmillan Dictionary blog, and they celebrated with posts on theatre speak; the language of rap; musical subcultures; and a roundup of the weirdest subcultural English words. Meanwhile, Stan Carey was caught in a webinar, and was impacted by the word impact. […]

    Posted by This Week’s Language Blog Roundup | Wordnik ~ all the words on 4th November, 2011
  • […] how does “impact” impact you? This post considers the word in the context of Michael Hoey’s lexical priming theory, which says […]

    Posted by Flouting class and flaunting mnemonics « Sentence first on 5th December, 2011
  • Stan, I work in the voluntary sector and “making an impact” is part and parcel of our lexicon. We have to prove we are “making an impact” if we are to be successful in grant applications. I take your point from Michael Rundell that how it impacts on us can depend on the context in which we first heard it. I resist it but I don’t hate it. Your example of impacting a child – now THAT I hate. On a totally separate (but connected) matter I keep hearing newsreaders referring to places being “inundated” with rain and it irks me beyond reason. I’m trying to identify my lexical priming moment…

    Posted by Helen on 10th February, 2014
  • Thanks for those reflections, Helen. Like you, I resist it in my own usage but I don’t hate it. Since it’s standard and common, hating it would be an awful hassle, not to mention bad for my blood pressure. I think it makes sense to tolerate words we react against, and to be mindful of their connotations so we can avoid talking about “impacting children” with vehicles, to return to that example.

    Posted by Stan on 12th February, 2014
Leave a Comment
* Required Fields