January 20, 2013

If the President uses "impact" as a verb, may I?

In today's NY Times, Jodi Kantor assures the reader that "after 4 years, friends see shifts in the Obamas." They are "more confident but more scarred." Not only are they "less hesitant about directing staff members," they have learned that Mr. Obama's presidency will also be shaped by "locusts," unanticipated events that swarm without warning. And they use more political jargon. In particular, "one former aide was startled to hear Mr. Obama use 'impact' as a verb, a particular tendency in the capital." 

Perhaps the aide would be suprised to learn that the OED lists the verb (with the meaning "to press closely into or in something" as older than the noun. However, all of the early examples involve the past participle impacted, which, upon closer inspection, may really rather be adjectival (it is combined with copular verbs like "become").
1601   The seed of this hearbe remooveth the tough humours bedded in the stomacke, how hard impacted soever they be.1677   Ideas or notions impacted on the mind.
1712    These Pyramids, which receive the Hairs, are impacted in the Cutis.
1791   Impact fire into iron, by hammering it when red hot.
1897    A stone-like mass..which had become impacted in the lower ilium.
The newer use, "to have a (pronounced) effect on" emerged in the 20th century, in the language of science (not politics), as in "Experimental results for the efficiency of jets in impacting particles are correlated " (1945). The noun "impact" also has is origin in dynamics. The more figurative use emerged  a century later, especially in the phrase "make an impact (on)."
1781   The same rule, by which common velocity of hard or non-elastic bodies after their impact..is calculated.
1817   In any given perception there is a something which has been communicated to it [the mind] by an impact, or an impression ab extra.
The diagram below is a Google n-gram of impact as a verb (blue graph) and as a noun (red graph). The verb only accounts for a small portion of the occurrences, which is why it still has a ring of novelty about it. This particular chart is silent on whether or not the verb is typical of policital speech.

Interestingly, the OED records the verb (with the meaning "to press closely into or in something" as the older word . However, all of the early examples involve the past participle impacted, which, upon closer inspection, may really rather be adjectival (it is combined with copular verbs like "become").

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