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