Saturday, September 6, 2008

What is this in refer to?

A long time ago, a reporter showed me a news story from the 1800s that described "an awful fire."

The reporter pointed out that in this case, the 19th-century journalist was not saying that the fire was "very bad" or "horrific," but that it was of such a magnitude as to fill one with awe.

Proving once again that language changes.

Some changes are good. Other changes aren't exactly good but somehow become more acceptable over time.

Many years ago, a copy editor I was working with hated the use of "hopefully" to mean "it is to be hoped" -- as in, "Hopefully, he will survive the operation." He hated this so much that he would change it each time, and if "hopefully," in this sense, appeared as a quote, he'd try to paraphrase the quote.

Which seemed a bit much.

A few years ago, by which time I think I had given in on this use of "hopefully," this same copy editor told me he also had surrendered and was allowing this use -- even outside of quotes.

Were I a coffee drinker, this announcement would surely have put me in the Guinness World Records book for Farthest-Reaching Danny Thomas Spit Take.

In the 1980s, as libraries were becoming more computerized, I heard a librarian use "access" as a verb, as in "I cannot access this file." I hated this, and I resisted it for a long time, but I think it eventually occurred to me that a) this use of "access" was becoming more widespread and b) changing "access" to "get access to" within the context of computers seemed to result in awkward sentences. (And "get access to" added extra words.)

So I gave in on that, too.

But there are some nouns that don't seem to serve any useful purpose on verbs, and although I try not to be crotchety about it, I'm still attempting to hold the line on "impact" and "reference."

As a verb, "impact" doesn't really do anything that "affect" doesn't already do, and with the same amount of letters. So why has it become widespread, even among people who are known to be intelligent? Perhaps "impact" sounds more important stronger, with hard consonants, while "affect" seems, well, wussy.

But although I haven't given in on "impact" as a verb, it no longer produces an almost Pavlovian "fingernails-on-the-blackboard" reaction.

But "reference," as a verb, does.

It says nothing that "refers to" doesn't already say, and it's not any shorter.

So why is it so widespread? My best guess: Although it doesn't have the hard consonants of "impact," it makes a sentence -- and it's writer or speaker -- sound more important.

Oh well. At least I haven't heard anyone "allusioning" something.



Pawlie Kokonuts said...

I admit to the world here and now that I was that hapless, hopeless "hopefully" excisor. As for "impact" as a verb, I'm with you. Totally. The only time I countenance it is for the literally sense (to collide). But wait. I lie. I've been an editor in the environmental field for 15+ years. "Impact" is almost a term of art, sad to say: "The pollutants [constituents, if one is feeling euphemistic] impacted the soil." "The impacted wetlands..." I HAD to give up, grinding my teeth. And I think this holds the key to this rampant use: it stems from environmental IMPACT statements, which originated in the early 1970s because of NEPA. I don't know if Wm. Safire would agree, but that's my hunch.

As for reference as a verb, again, I agree with you. I used to work with a woman who loved that use. A lawyer. Of course.

Most hated noun-into-verb for me? Effort, popularized by Jim Reith locally. Egad! (Or is t egads?)

Mark Murphy said...


Thank you for sharing.

I'm pretty sure I've heard "efforting" from broadcast journalists, but I suspect I might have also seen it on notes from AP to editors on developing stories -- notes that aren't, of course, published, or at least aren't supposed to be published.

I wonder whether the usage might come from the days (long before our time in the biz) when dispatches came by cable and a news organization was charged by the word, leading to what I think was known as "cablese."

Perhaps the very capable Brian Cubbison, who's seen more raw wire stuff than I have lately, can weigh in on this.