A couple of years ago I taught a class in copy editing at Marshall University. One day I began our session by writing the word “atom” on the whiteboard. I asked my students what “atom” meant. Don’t tell me what an atom is, I said; tell me what the word “atom” means.
They looked confused, so I drew a vertical line between the first two letters. The “a,” I said, is a prefix that means “not.” The “tom” means “cut,” as in appendectomy or tonsillectomy. Thus, the word “atom” means “no cut.” “Atom” was coined to signify the smallest unit of matter — one that could not be cut apart — that was known at that time.
I could tell the light went on in some of them, while others would need more time to grasp this concept, that words have (or should have) specific meanings.
We talked about the word “punctuation.” It comes from the same root as the word “puncture.” The root “punct” means to pierce with a small sharp object. To punctuate a sentence is to interrupt the stream of words with a small mark.
Words change meaning over time. “Livid” originally meant black or blue, as in a bruise. Later it meant pale with rage, and now it means red with rage.
Take “infrared” — below red. It’s the part of the electromagnetic spectrum just below red, which is the color with the longest wavelength the human eye can detect. Or infrasound, with frequencies below the lower limit of human hearing. Whales, elephants and other large animals use infrasound to communicate over long distances.
Which brings us to “infrastructure.” Six months ago, infrastructure was a word used to describe the large-scale physical structures that make modern transportation, communication and basic necessities of life available to us. Some of it is visible. Some is not. It’s the structure that is below the ground.
Every now and then we throw a modifier in front of “infrastructure.” We might say “human infrastructure” to talk about education or job training, but when we do that, we make it known that human infrastructure is similar to structural infrastructure, but we don’t think they are the same thing.
That was then. This is now.
What happened in the past four months shows how language changes to suit political needs. President Joe Biden needed to sell the nation on a $2 trillion spending package. He couldn’t come out and say it would be a mix of large-scale investment in roads, bridges and broadband service along with funding for almost every social program out there. To sell his plan, he had to label it all as infrastructure. And some people are buying it.
I didn’t think they would until I looked through Twitter and found where people were talking of day care centers as infrastructure. Some of them write for a living. What happened to their precision of language, which for a writer is precision of thought? It’s easy to unconsciously copy how other people write and talk, but every now and then we need to pause and ask ourselves what we’re doing.
If infrastructure means everything, then it means nothing, and we might as well retire the word.