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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years


(1980’s | enginese | “affect,” “have an effect,” “have an impact on”)

“Impact” became a verb first among engineers, as far as I can tell, and probably became common in militarese around the same time. It was used to mean “make an impact” (as in a rocket landing), but more commonly as short for “have an impact on.” In the latter sense, it was usually formulated as “impact on,” as a matter of fact. The verb could even mean “have an effect” – subtly different from “affect,” as in this fragment from U.S. News and World Report, December 17, 1979: “Now, it is also impacting in other ways,” meaning “it has other effects.” This sounds strange now, but it is clearly related to the more widespread use, representing a possibility that didn’t catch on.

The usage probably spread from engineers and military brass into government circles, then into businese and thence into general discourse. The “on” seems to have mostly disappeared by the end of the 1980’s, by which time the term was comfortably established as a substitute for “affect.” I don’t use it myself, but I’ve given up getting annoyed when others do.

Of course, “impact” (accented on the second syllable) has been a verb for a long time. It can happen to your teeth, for example, and it is implicit in a construction like “impacting particle,” which a physicist might use. But our common usage today is invariably accented on the first syllable.

One thing puzzles me about this verb. Why has “impact” as a straightforward substitute for “hit” or “crash into” never caught on? It is occasionally used that way by scientists and engineers, but the rest of us have settled meekly for a weak, strictly metaphorical, usage. The noun, after all, denotes forceful contact much more often than a glancing blow. So why do we never hear, “That car impacted that tree like nothing I ever saw”?


(1990’s | therapese? | “blow off steam”)

Another noun turned verb, although in this case the dirty work was done in the sixteenth century, so we are less inclined to get exercised about it. Before 1980, this verb had could be used literally and transitively (as in “vent steam away from the plant”); it could be used literally and intransitively (that was uncommon, but here’s an example from the an Associated Press story about trying to salvage a helicopter from the sea, February 23, 1979: “When they got it into a 90-degree position, the air that had been trapped in the gas tanks vented, the buoyancy changed and it sank”); it could be used figuratively and transitively (as in “vent one’s spleen, anger, etc.”). But it was not used figuratively and intransitively. The quartet is now complete, and American English has marched on.

All the existing usages had been around for centuries. We have been venting our souls, hearts, and spleens for a long time, and we’ve been venting smoke and steam almost as long. So it’s somewhat momentous to have admitted a new usage just within the last thirty years.

Three Mile Island happened right at the beginning of that period, so we got used to hearing about venting radioactive steam and other dangerous gases — not a new usage, to be sure, but we were all paying attention in March 1979, and we all heard the term used that way repeatedly. I suspect that gave the word a boost. Or it may just be an abridgment. Who has time in these hectic latter days to vent one’s spleen when one can simply vent? “Never mind me; I’m just venting my spleen” becomes “I’m just venting.” Natural enough.

One nuance remains unchanged: “vent” is used only for a strong emotion, specifically anger or frustration. If you’re talking to a grieving person, you don’t say “Go ahead and vent”; you say “Go ahead. Let it out.”

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