Monday, May 16, 2016


Posted By on Mon, May 16, 2016 at 10:13 AM

Apropos of nothing—no social or educational import whatever—I have to say I hate the word "impactful." Even when it sits silently on paper, it hurts my ears. Impactful. Ugh.

This isn't a case of word snobbery. I'm not a card carrying member of the word police. I agree with the statement I first read as a high school senior that the dictionary is a historian (an historian?), not a lawgiver. New words are great. Inspired slang is wonderful. "Ain't" is a word, and a good word at that. "I ain't got no pencil" doesn't mean I have a pencil (Language is communication, not math. Two negatives don't automatically make a positive. Everyone knows the speaker doesn't have a pencil—everyone, that is, except that persnickety English teacher who pretends not to understand). It's cute to answer a student's question, "Can I go to the bathroom?" by saying, "Yes you can, but you may not." It may be one of those teachable moments, though if the poor kid pees his/her pants, the only lesson will be that the teacher is a sadist. But in real life, everyone knows the sentence, "Can I go to the bathroom?" is a request to leave the room to relieve oneself.

This morning I read a short note in the Star about the death of actress Madeleine LeBeau at 92. I learned she had a "small but impactful role in 'Casablanca.'" Ironically, that ugly word, virtually devoid of emotion, is supposed to describe the visual and emotional impact (ah, much better!) of a closeup on LeBeau's face as she stands, tears in her eyes, during the spontaneous singing of "La Marseillaise" by the patrons in Rick's (Humphrey Bogart's) cafe to drown out some German soldiers.

Impactful. Who made that a word? To find out, I googled it. ("To google," by the way, is an example of "verbing," where nouns are turned into verbs. The trend surged in business circles a few decades back ["We need to dialogue about this"; "Let's calendar our next meeting"] and has become a vital part of our online world ["Bookmark that website"; "Email me"; "Text Me"; "I'm gonna blog about that"]). "Impactful" has been around at least since the 1950s, most probably created by academic writers, who love to invent clunky jargon to distinguish themselves from normal English speakers. Later it was picked up by business people who use newly coined words to make themselves feel like they're ahead of the curve, as if a new term is the same thing as a clever new idea. Gradually, it worked its way into art, dance and film criticism which, I guess, is why it was in the LeBeau obituary and turns up so often in movie reviews.

If blogging on this topic plays an impactful role in limiting the use of that awful word, my work here is done.

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