‘This company meets the highest standards of social and environmental impact’ – advertisement for whisky, Feb 2023.

The word ‘impact’ has undergone a rapid metamorphosis in the two decades of this century. It’s changed its character and meaning several times, and I could give innumerable examples of its many current uses, none of them dreamed of in the mid-twentieth century. In the later twentieth century the OED gave the word in two forms: as a noun meaning ‘a collision’, and as a verb meaning ‘to press closely to or in’ something. Simple – much too simple, of course, for our diverse times. 

I’m afraid I have once again to go to America for the recent history of the word, and to Arnold Schwarzenegger in particular, who may well be the ideal spokesman for modern American English. In September 2003 he was reported as saying ‘that the two people who have most profoundly impacted my thinking on economics are Milton Friedman and Adam Smith.’ At the time, I noted that, apart from the oddly pompous effect of the phase ‘most profoundly impacted’ rather than ‘influenced’ or ‘affected my thinking’, this was, grammatically, a double whammy. 

‘Impacted’ – treating the noun ‘impact’ as a transitive verb – was then a neologism, though we were beginning to get used to it. ‘Impacted my thinking’ struck me then as almost shocking in its elision: there was no preposition (say, ‘impacted on my thinking’) – just the simple verb-object relationship. Again, my surprise was out of date: the usage was already well-established. It has always been typical of American English to condense and at the same time simplify the syntax. In the summer of 2006, I noted that ‘to impact’ as a transitive verb had become commonplace in Britain. But still more potential was to emerge in abundance over the ensuing decade: this was very evidently ‘living’ English in full flower.  

The sentence I cited at the top seems to treat ‘impact’ no longer as a mere verb, transitive or intransitive, but as a force – an agency? a concept? – that engages with both society and the environment in different ways, which in turn can be measured by ‘the highest standards.’ Though it purports simply to describe a whisky company’s environmental credentials (as every self-respecting business must, nowadays), the statement manages to introduce a bewildering set of ideas. That phrase ‘the highest standards of social and environmental impact’ is disconcerting because it uses ‘impact’ as though the word occupied a well-defined place in our thinking, while, as I’ve just explained, it has elbowed its way in via various half-understood notions and certainly doesn’t have a clear enough identity to be calibrated into ‘standards’, high, low or in between. But maybe once again I’m behind the times. The modern world is full of Arnold Schwartzeneggers.

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