Lurking Impactfuls

Today on the NPR I heard someone say, “even more impactfully” [link].  Knowing that anything to do with “impact” is peever-bait [of the “only teeth can be impacted” variety–see BBC Magazine: “Should “impact” ever be used as a verb?“], I was surprised to find that “impactfully” occurs unselfconsciously about once a day on Twitter, and only a handful of times in the “not a word” context. OED doesn’t yet agree about “impactfully”, nor even “impactful”. “Impact” as a noun goes back to 1781, and as a verb to 1601 (but in the figurative sense of “affect,” “influence”, only to 1935).

But that was not the interesting part about my researches. The interesting part was that, because OED Online is smart enough to tell you answers to things you didn’t think to ask (the nice “Widen Search?” suggestion), looking up “impactful” returned these buried attestations:

  • s.v “point, n.”: 2003 Asian Trader 7 Nov. 19/2 The focus on range..needs to be underpinned by impactful display at the point of purchase.
  • s.v. “trade unionese”: 1966 Human Events 18 June 9/2 There is impactful significance in Mr. Curran’s trade unionese.

And then THIS! Not in the current OED Online, but in my trusty old OED2:

  • s.v. “over-” 1973 Sociometry XXXVI. 135 A false fire-alarm went off precisely as the stimulus-subject in a severe condition was screaming from the electrical shock, providing an extremely amusing *overdramatization of an already impactful event.

[Guys! This is why you don’t suppress quotations, even if you found one (much less good one) from just a little bit earlier! Yeesh.]

All that makes a pretty solid case for a new headword, with three instances in the existing corpus, dating back to 1966. A little sleuthing would no doubt turn up earlier uses of “impactful,” (which my spellchecker refuses to ununderline… also “spellchecker”… also “ununderline”) whence “impactfully” is but a small step. [Here’s a very little bit of sleuthing: “impactful”: at least back to 1959 (Journal of Human Relations v. 7) with a bunch of Google Books cites in the mid-sixties, and an Ngram curve that absolutely takes off after 1967. “Impactfully”: early as 1965 – “The arts communicate impactfully to educate the emotions,” though admittedly in decline since its peak in the mid 1980s.]

Now, I don’t care much about “impact”, “impactful”, “impactfully”. What really made me wonder was, if “impactful” is sitting there two or three times in the existing quotation corpus, and hasn’t yet been written up as a headword, what else might be already there? Robert Burchfield, after editing the Second Supplement to OED, regretted that T. S. Eliot’s immortal “like a patient etherized upon a table” had not been included s.v. “etherize,” but what he apparently did not know was that his own edition had included that same line s.v. “table.” Digitization, obviously, solved that sort of problem. In fact, a number of words were soon thereafter antedated with existing OED quotations that had been buried in other headwords.

So what unheadworded words, like “impactful,” might be already known to OED, as it were subconsciously? I wrote a short script to ferret some out: basically it counts up all the words in all OED quotation evidence, then checks the word-stem (e.g. “impact” for “impactful”, “quotat” for “quotations”) against a list of stemmed headwords. Words are flagged if they do not appear in the quotation evidence for the entries with the same stem. E.g., if “quotations” does not appear in all the entries whose headwords have the stem “quotat”, then it is flagged up.

I got 42,290 results. That’s way more than I can go through systematically. It looks like the vast majority are uninteresting cases of spelling variation (e.g. “abashement” is not in “abashment” but is in a quotation s.v. “damp”) or basic inflection, or stemming mistakes, but a quick scan does turn up some interesting examples. Here’s a few:

  • There is no verb “ambiguate” in recorded OED (though “disambiguate does exist), but under “doggerel” we find: 1994   K. J. Gergen in H. W. Simons & M. Billig After Postmodernism i. ii. 64   There are..myriad means of ambiguating, complexifying, doggerelizing or transforming any utterance to imbecility.
  • OED has “ambeloblast” but not “ambeloblastic” (though “meroblastic” and “mesoblastic” are there. The adjective shows up in three quotes s.v. “odontoma”, “palisade”, and “subnuclear”.
  • How does one feel about “darkeningly”? One quot, under “pelt”: 1988   M. Brodsky X in Paris 89   They persisted in the chewing without looking up or to the side or toward the sky darkeningly ravaged by a pelt.
  • OED doesn’t record the specific sense of “deafness” as “a deaf patient” or “a case of deafness in a patient”, as it is used in medicine. The plural “deafnesses”  occurs in this sense under “internal medicine”, “syringe”, “roborate”, “practitioner”.
  • There’s no noun “debarker” (though there is the verb “debark”), but that word is used s.v. “rosser”.
  • No “debatation”, except under “reportation” (and perhaps only jocularly).
  • “Debonairely” only occurs under “outrageously”.
  • Nothing about the form “decidely” (=”decidedly”), except under “queen”, “give-away”, “diesel”, “induced”.
  • “lingerie” OED says refers to articles of a woman’s wardrobe collectively (same way “clothing” is collective). But, as the quot under “petti” shows, it can be a count noun as well: 1971   Guardian 24 Aug. 9/1   The language of lingeries..petties and pretties, and frillies.
  • No “menstruator”, except under “baby-maker”.
  • Similarly, no “mineragrapher”, except under “mineragraphy”.
  • “virtuoso” has 54 quotations, 13 of which are in the plural form “virtuosi” but no “virtuosos”, though this is listed as a variant plural form in the entry. “Virtuosos” appears in quotes under six other headwords (“ace”, “hare”, “exceeding”, “master”, “curious”, “scent”) – it probably would have made sense to have at least one example under the main headword.

And so on and so on. I don’t know whether any of these terms merit official inclusion–I suppose in the end that will depend on how much Google Books etc. can corroborate their impactfulness (“ambiguate, v.” seems to me a good candidate).


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