Softening the impact

HS2: I'm just saying, it could happen

Reading my copy of Private Eye this week, I was interested in a letter (page 13) from Robin Stummer, who was complaining about the government’s feasibility study into HS2, the new high-speed rail line between London and Birmingham – and especially the use of the weasel phrase “physical impact” to describe what will happen to 300 or so listed buildings, conservation areas and woodlands along the route. Here’s an example from the report, which warns us that building HS2 will include:

Adverse physical impacts on two Scheduled Monuments, 14 Grade II listed buildings and 3 Grade II* Registered parks and gardens within the physical impact corridor.

Imagine a man with a clipboard and a peaked hat saying it. I like trains, but I like them less when I read documents like this.

I quote newfound talknormalist Optymystic, commenting to an article about Talk Normal:

Impacts is used as a substitute for causes, influences, bears upon, determines, affects, all of which provide precise ways of expressing the sense clearly, by contrast with which “impacts” is vague.

He could have included stronger words such as decreases or destroys, but he makes a good point: it’s part of a flattening of the language that seems to be assisting in the flattening of listed buildings. You can’t tell what an adverse physical impact is, because it could be anything from having a train tootling by just outside your moat to having one whizzing up your Grade II listed hallway – maybe that’s what they mean by an impact corridor.

“Impact” is a technocratic weasel word that avoids having to explain what the result of the impact is, which is precisely what we need to know. It’s also a successful weasel word, twice as popular as it was 10 years ago:

“Impacts” usually means something bad: rule of thumb from Factiva is that there are two admitted negative impacts in the press for every one described as positive; with the majority left unqualified so that we have to work out for ourselves what people are carefully trying not to tell us.

I’m guessing that the unqualified uses of the word are, in the main, bad news avoided to make sure we don’t get too upset. After all, impact is not an efficient word when used to deliver happiness: no one tells you that you’ve won the lottery by announcing that it will “impact your ability to pay the rent”. But, if I’m working for you and I tell you that creating silly pictures of trains for Talk Normal will “impact my ability to meet your deadline”, then take it from me: I’m going to be late.

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