It was therefore only a matter of time before I went into ‘Grumpy Old Man’ mode and ranted about the ever-increasing use of the word ‘impact’. Mrs Flynn will no doubt roll her eyes to the heavens when she reads this blog because she’s heard my ‘impact chat’ more times than she cares to mention. The gist of my complaint is that ‘impact’ is to the English language what Japanese Knotweed is to our indigenous plant species – it chokes off the competition and makes the place much less interesting and colourful.
According to my dog-eared childhood Oxford Dictionary (circa 1978), ‘impact‘ (the noun) means ‘striking or collision’; as a verb it means ‘press, fix, closely or firmly’; as an adjective, ‘impacted’ is used chiefly in the medical world to mean ‘wedged; pressed firmly together’ particularly in relation to teeth (‘wedged between another tooth and the jaw’), fractured bones (‘having the parts crushed together’) and faeces (‘lodged in the intestine’).
These days the Japanese Knotweed of the English language pops up everywhere, stealing the place of perfectly good, solid, reliable words like, ‘affect’, ‘effect’, ‘result’, consequences’, 'implications', ‘outcome’, ‘repercussions’ and the like. Take the following:
On the BBC news this week, following a £100m donation to Cambridge University by a billionaire philanthropist, Professor Sir Mark Welland, Master of St Catharine's College at Cambridge, said the investment would 'have a tremendous and permanent impact' on the university as a whole. Surely he meant to say 'benefit' rather than 'impact'? In the same week, the BBC news also reported that 'what's been most remarkable is not how much of an economic impact all the Brexit-related uncertainty has had, but how little.' Does that statement refer to a 'good impact' or a 'bad impact', or did it simply mean a neutral 'effect'? It's almost impossible to tell sometimes.
A few years ago I remember reading a press release from one of the big financial institutions during a cost-cutting exercise. The statement said that as a result of the exercise there would be ‘employee impacts’. I think it meant ‘redundancies’ or ‘job losses’.
One of the beauties of the English language is that it is rich, varied and vast. The Oxford Dictionary (circa 2019) says that while it is impossible to be precise, there are probably about 250,000 words in the English language and that ‘it seems quite probable that English has more words than most comparable world languages.’ Even the most basic Thesaurus will give you several words that could be used in place of the one that you had in mind, and yet ‘impact’ (along with ‘impacting’, ‘impacted’ and their awful new-born sibling, ‘impactful’) seems increasingly to ride roughshod over everything else, even when there’s no sign of a wedged tooth, a broken bone or an immoveable poo. My rule of thumb is that the word should only be used when (i) two objects physically strike each other (for example when a meteorite hits the earth); (ii) if you’re unfortunate enough to suffer an unpleasant medical episode involving something getting stuck; or (iii) if you’re naming a disaster movie.
Two or three years ago, I saw ‘impact’ being used for the first time in a draft legal document (not drafted by my firm, I hasten to add). One party was allowed to terminate an agreement if the other party’s actions had ‘a significant impact’ on profitability. Utterly meaningless; I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, but my trusty red pen soon sorted things out.
Going forward, my next rant will be about the dreadful phrase ‘going forward’ that seems to sneak in all over the place. ‘I can’t wait’, I hear you muttering.