Word Matters Podcast

'Contact' and 'Impact': Acceptable verbs?

Word Matters, Episode 16

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For many, the term 'bounty hunter' might evoke the Old West (or at the very least, Star Wars). But is it a much newer word than expected? We'll investigate. Then, we look at two of the most-maligned verbs of the past century: 'contact' and 'impact.'

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(intro music – “Build Something Beautiful” by Tobias Voigt)

(teaser clips)

Peter Sokolowski: The fact is that these are now mythical figures. From popular entertainment and from novels and movies we've got these terms, and now they've colored our own view of history, of what we think happened back then.

Ammon Shea: So long as we can meet, get in touch with, make the acquaintance of, be introduced to, call on, interview, or talk to people, there can be no apology for contact.

Emily Brewster: Coming up on Word Matters: bounty hunters and a few controversial verbs. I'm Emily Brewster, and Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media. On each episode, Merriam-Webster editors, Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, Peter Sokolowski, and I, explore some aspect of the English language from the dictionary's vantage point.

The bounty hunter is a powerful figure in fiction. We see him saunter through tumbleweed towns, and grapple with complex moral codes in the barren landscapes of a galaxy far, far away. The figure is in fact so powerful that its ties to history are accepted without question. But, when we look at the history of the term bounty hunter, we find that it's not quite what we thought. Here's Peter Sokolowski, on a word that Hollywood built.

Peter Sokolowski: The world of Star Wars is a visual world. It's a musical world. But, it's also a world of vocabulary, it seems to me. And, one of the points that is striking to me about Star Wars is that it's this fantasy, it's science fiction, and yet the words that are associated with the storytelling and the characters are mostly pretty common words. Words that we know. I mean even, like for example, there are some words that are made up like Jedi, but they are called Knights. And, think of the weapons, they're just called blasters. And they refer to light speed, or tractor beam, sand people, moisture farm.

Emily Brewster: Parsec.

Peter Sokolowski: Parsecs, and all of these are real words. They're all in the dictionary. What's interesting to me is I think that's one of the things that grounds this story. One of the things that makes Star Wars so popular is that it's so easily understood as a narrative, and that's because you're not really hung up on vocabulary. You don't have to try to figure out what's a Tribble, these funny words that are sometimes part of science fiction. And, one of the terms used in the Star Wars saga is the term bounty hunter. And, this is important in a couple of points. One, in what many people consider the finest film of the saga, The Empire Strikes Back, there's a cast of characters who are bounty hunters, who are sent to chase Han Solo. But, then in the more recent show, called The Mandalorian, they take the most charismatic of these characters and turn that costume and that character, or some version of it, into the principal character. It's kind of a spinoff.

And the thing about bounty hunter is that, like these other terms, I always assumed it was as old as the stories that it evokes, which is to say, from the old West, from the movies of the '40s and '50s and '30s even, that would have these characters. I just assumed, well, bounty hunter must've been a real thing in the mid-1800s out West. And it turns out, when we looked into this, that the term itself not only is more recent than that, but that nobody ever called bounty hunters, "bounty hunters" in the old West. And that is to say that there were men, mostly men, who would seek to capture, they would kind of be vigilantes, right, seek to capture a criminal for a reward, but they weren't called bounty hunters. And when we started looking at what a bounty hunter was, originally, a bounty hunter was a reward-seeker looking for wildlife, and not for criminals. In other words, not a vigilante, but someone who was kind of a freelance hunter. Bounties were put on, for example, predatory animals like coyotes or wolves. And so, if you went out into the hills and shot yourself a few of these animals, then you could take their skins back and get the reward, and you were a bounty hunter. That's the original use of this term that we can trace back into beginning of the late 1800s.

Emily Brewster: You were a literal hunter.

Peter Sokolowski: You are literally a hunter. That's right. But, these were more like mountain men than they were like vigilantes. Do you know what I'm saying? They were woodsmen who carried rifles. They were not criminals or ex-criminals, or foreign Legionnaires, or whatever you would think of as a bounty hunter, or an ex-soldier typically.

Ammon Shea: What's interesting is that in our definition for bounty, we give four different subsenses. And since four is a kind of reward premium, especially when offered or given via government, and sense 4C is a payment to encourage the destruction of noxious animals, which actually is listed before the payment for the capture of an outlaw.

Peter Sokolowski: So, there you go. It was sitting in plain sight all along. We have to kind of pick it apart to find this stuff up, but the word bounty of course comes from French, bountee, meaning kindness or goodness. Ultimately that led to a derivative meaning of generosity. And so, that became the term reward in English. So, bounty became a word for reward or bonus. Initially that group of people who were hunters were actually bonus hunters, which it doesn't sound that tough actually. Bonus hunters or reward hunters, that's how it started, and that's how it was used in the 1800s.

What's interesting is that the idea of a tough vigilante is unsurprisingly the creation of Hollywood, especially in the '40s and '50s, black and white westerns, they had these more or less stock characters, right? There was the sheriff and there were the outlaws. We had, the Lone Ranger was one version of a kind of a vigilante. And these became myths that we told ourselves. They didn't necessarily reflect the actual history.

There was a novel, I believe, called The Bounty Hunter. It was published in 1954. There was a film, a western, called The Bounty Hunter, also from 1954. And after that point, that's when you start to see this term show up all the time. And then the character of the man with no name, the Clint Eastwood vigilante character in his films, who was understood to be a bounty hunter. These came in the late 1960s, early '70s. These are much more recent than the actual phenomenon that they depict.

Neil Serven: It's interesting that the semantic meetings of really both parts of that term are pivoting.

Peter Sokolowski: Right.

Neil Serven: From the original sense of someone who is seeking, going out to hunt game, literally hunting as Emily noted, seeking a reward for that game that is then hunted. Now, it's like you're hunting the person.

Peter Sokolowski: Right.

Neil Serven: To find them.

Peter Sokolowski: Right.

Neil Serven: A different aspect of hunting that is then happening. You're not necessarily shooting them, or bringing them back like a rabbit or something. It's an interesting pivot that that happened. That was really natural and not obvious.

Peter Sokolowski: In the Star Wars films, this character of Boba Fett became the principal of these bounty hunters. Boba Fett, who inspired The Mandalorian, the new series. Now maybe, I'm sure there were vigilantes. I'm sure there were "Wanted dead or alive" posters, obviously that existed in the old West, but the more organized profession that this term seems to denote maybe really didn't exist. Maybe they were just guys who happened to have a little free time and owned a gun.

Neil Serven: I think of sheriffs' posses as more of a realistic thing, and I don't know if those were actually a common thing in the old West, or if that is also a myth of Hollywood or storytelling as well. But, you think of the sheriff rounding up the posse. It's not one guy going out to look to be the hero.

Peter Sokolowski: Right.

Neil Serven: It's kind of this team effort that's happening.

Peter Sokolowski: Exactly. And, the fact is that these are now mythical figures. From popular entertainment and from novels and movies, we've got these terms, and now they've colored our own view of history of what we think happened back then. Maybe that expresses all kinds of other things, like prejudice or just fantasy.

Neil Serven: Well, this is the writer's challenge, right? Especially when you're dealing in fantasy and science fiction, and you're trying to create a world that is both odd and strange and mysterious, but also familiar.

Peter Sokolowski: Exactly.

Emily Brewster: Right.

Ammon Shea: Knowable and unknowable.

Neil Serven: Knowable and unknowable.

Emily Brewster: That's right. Accessible.

Neil Serven: And so, you've got to try to find that balance. Certain science fiction writers like to just go all out with crazy names for creatures, like Tribbles, and Orcs, and whatever, and not using these real world reference points in their writing. And so, with Star Wars, you've made the point that take this familiar narrative, this familiar old West narrative, and then just happen to set it in space, in the landscape of space. And, you've got these ideas of rebellion, and justice, and avengements. Those are very familiar things that we know on our planet, in our real life. And then, they put it out in this outer space setting, and it has this kind of new gravitas to it.

Peter Sokolowski: Absolutely.

Neil Serven: It's interesting how the selection of language can often decide how familiar that other worldly narrative is going to be.

Peter Sokolowski: And how it's going to feel.

Ammon Shea: The interesting thing about orc that you mentioned though, is that orc was actually taken from older English.

Neil Serven: Is it?

Peter Sokolowski: Really?

Neil Serven: Yeah, Tolkien, of course, yeah.

Ammon Shea: Tolkien was a professor of philology.

Neil Serven: Now that you say it, yeah.

Ammon Shea: Tolkien a professor of languages at Oxford, and he studied old English. And a lot of the terms that he tried to use were deliberately taking older terms and bringing them back into use.

Peter Sokolowski: Has that echo of familiarity, or at least reality, to it when taking vocabulary that's inspired from real words. When Ammon started diving into the archives to find this term, we found the term bounty hunters used before the vigilante sense, because originally the reward was that you would get a certain sum of money when you joined the service, when you joined the British Navy, for example, in the 1700s, or when you joined the Union Army in the 1860s. And so, bounty hunters actually referred to the young men who signed up in order to get their bonus, to get the money that they could send home. And then they'd march off to war. That's what the original use of bounty hunter was. And that's very different from what we understand it today.

Ammon Shea: Right. It's so fading.

Neil Serven: We don't even define that.

Peter Sokolowski: Exactly. But also, that practice of the press gangs for the British Navy, and the recruiting Sergeant in the British Army that would often get men drunk in a village and have them sign up. And that was the old trope that they would be promised, the King's shilling, they'd be promised a bounty to sign and join. And again, something that's now purely historical and has no place in our culture. And yet today, bounty hunter is alive and well on The Mandalorian and other cable TV shows.

Emily Brewster: I find that I really resent what it's done to the word bounty, because I think the word bounty is just a really lovely word. It's about abundance. It's about "bountiful." So, I didn't really like what they've done to bounty. I like I the idea of abundance and what is bountiful and plenty.

Neil Serven: I believe it's moderately related to the word abundance, right?

Emily Brewster: Yes.

Peter Sokolowski: Yes.

Neil Serven: It's this kind of fruitfulness to it and to have it be used as this kind of almost cynically used as this cash payment.

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah.

Emily Brewster: Cynically used, cheapened.

Peter Sokolowski: As a mercenary, basically.

Neil Serven: Yeah.

Emily Brewster: Yeah.

Peter Sokolowski: Absolutely. Well, that's what happens. The term is now well-established, but it's just interesting that it was well-established by the film industry and not by the old West.

Ammon Shea: Damn you, Hollywood.

Emily Brewster: You're listening to Word Matters. I'm Emily Brewster. We'll contact you after the break with a look at the hubbub surrounding contact as a verb. Word Matters is a production of Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Peter Sokolowski: I am Peter Sokolowski. Join me every day for the Word of the Day. A brief look at the definition and history of one word, available at merriam-webster.com, or wherever you get your podcasts. And for more podcasts from New England Public Media, visit the NEPM podcast hub at nepm.org.

Neil Serven: I'm Neil Serven. Do you have a question about the origin, history, or meaning of a word? Email us at wordmatters@m-w.com.

Emily Brewster: When a common word is used in a way that sounds technical or jargony, people tend to get all ruffled. There are charges that the use is an error or new. Often enough though, there's no error, and the castigated use is actually older than the more familiar one. Next up, Ammon Shea on contacting and impacting.

Ammon Shea: Merriam Websters we are, it is safe to say all of us, a bunch of card carrying descriptivists, by which has meant that we view our mandate as describing the language rather than prescribing language. Those are the prescriptivists. They are our sworn and mortal enemies. And, basically we're friendly with the prescriptivists, but we have this very different view on language.

Emily Brewster: And we don't invite them to our party.

Neil Serven: We don't ever invite them to our parties.

Ammon Shea: But every once in a while, I have to say, you come across a prescriptivist who says something, and it's just so well done that you got to say like, man, this guy, he's our enemy. But I got to say, I really like the cut of this guy's jib. You know? And that happened to me not long ago when I came across-

Neil Serven: Have you been fraternizing with the enemy?

Ammon Shea: Well, it's safe because the guy has been dead for many decades. In the earlier part of the 20th century, there was a man who was an executive at the Western Union Company. His name was F. W. Lienau, and he wrote a memo to his staff, and it was a work of such passion and such moral indignation, that it almost, though not quite, made me reconsider my position on this word. And the word in question was the word contact, which used to be a big thing. People didn't like to say, contact me or contact somebody. It was a big no-no. You can either keep listening to find out why, or you can ask your grandparents. But, Lienau wrote this memo to everybody in Western Union, and it was as follows. "Somewhere there cumbers this fair earth with his loathsome presence a man who, for the common good, should have been destroyed in early childhood. He is the originator of the hideous vulgarism of using contact as a verb. So long as we can meet, get in touch with, make the acquaintance of, be introduced to, call on, interview, or talk to people, there can be no apology for contact." He feels strongly about this. I admire this man's passion. I think his position is totally absurd and baseless, but I do really applaud the passion that he brings to the table here.

Emily Brewster: Well, and I think also the phrasing of the passion.

Ammon Shea: Yeah.

Emily Brewster: Passion well-executed.

Ammon Shea: Yes, exactly. And, do you guys ever still get this, because I've seen up until 2000, I still have come across this admonition in the fourth edition of The Elements of Style, that was published in 2000, still has an entry for contact. And it says, "As a transitive verb, this word is vague and self-important. Do not contact people, get in touch with them, look them up, phone them, find them, meet them." This is still a kind of a thing for some people, right?

Emily Brewster: It's still a little bit of a thing.

Neil Serven: It's strange, though, because to me it feels almost ubiquitous to hear contact as a verb. You look on websites and there's always a link that says "contact us."

Emily Brewster: I haven't looked at it, but I wonder if there has been a significant shift in its acceptance since the advent of the iPhone, or maybe smartphones generally, because of your contact, the people who you know, that your phone knows you know. Or, who your phone believes you know, because sometimes I don't know all of them. They're called your contacts.

Neil Serven: Now, that use of a noun, contact, seems more new to me.

Emily Brewster: But I don't think it is, right? Isn't that where the verb comes from?

Ammon Shea: The earliest use of a noun was "the union or junction of surfaces," and that comes up in the early 17th century. Noun use definitely preceded verbal use.

Emily Brewster: But, how about the noun as referring to a person?

Ammon Shea: I don't know. The sense that people complained about to get into communication with, we have that as sense to be as a verb, that comes up in the early 1920s, I think. They get in touch with somebody. And, one of the things that I love is I don't think that it's just become accepted since the advent of the smartphone, because we have a lovely usage note from our Dictionary of English Usage, which was last published in 1989. So, this is well before the advent of smartphones. And, the editors of this wrote, "The use of contact as a verb, especially in sense to be," meaning to get in touch with, "is accepted as standard by almost all commentators, except those who write college handbooks." It's really a nasty dig at the college handbook crowd. But, I think is in fact accurate, the word has been widely accepted for a number of decades.

Emily Brewster: Yes. But I do wonder if it's made it more acceptable, because I do think that two decades ago I was hearing more of an objection. But, who knows, could have just also developed, finally reached that status where it's no longer objectionable, which is what typically happens to all of these.

Ammon Shea: Of course.

Emily Brewster: All of these words that are much despised.

Peter Sokolowski: Well, familiarity breeds contempt.

Neil Serven: Right.

Ammon Shea: It does, except there are some cases where we still haven't quite gotten around to. Like, there are ones for instance, impact, is a similar case. It's a similar-sounding, even looking- word. And, we still hear people say impact is not a verb.

Emily Brewster: But far fewer than used to.

Ammon Shea: Far fewer than used to. But when you consider that impact has actually been a verb in 1601, it's still, that's a very long tale on people claiming something that is not in fact true, is an absolute rule. It's a weird thing that some people get into, but not only has impact been a verb for well over 400 years, but it was a verb for about almost 200 years before it even became a noun. One of the problems that people have with impact is they like to say, well, it's not properly a verb. When you look at the early verb use, it's all about problems involving teeth and bowels.

Emily Brewster: It was technical. It was jargony. It was medical.

Ammon Shea: Jargony in a way you don't really want to talk about that.

Emily Brewster: And gross.

Ammon Shea: Jargony and gross. I don't think it was the jargony gross necessarily that made people think this wasn't a word. We just have this weird kind of thing sometimes with transitive verbs. Sometimes people will be uncomfortable with a verb used in a transit transitive sense, and that's interpreted as that's not a verb. And in some cases, we see people try to actually distinguish between them, like was the case with grow. Do you guys remember grow, transitive grow was a big deal? This is a great one for today, because people used to blame this on Bill Clinton. And, I have to say it's interesting to me that it used to be a thing, that the American people spent a good amount of time complaining about the President's use of what was seen to be an intransitive verb in a transitive manner. This used to be what we complained about. It feels a little innocent now. But anyway, people used to blame Bill Clinton for saying, "We need to grow the economy." People would go, oh my God, you can't grow the economy. It's not a transitive verb. You fool.

Peter Sokolowski: It's not a tomato.

Ammon Shea: First of all, Bill Clinton wasn't the first one to say "grow the economy." Other people did, but he popularized it. But, people would say, okay, it's not a transitive verb, and other people would say, well, it is a transitive verb, but only if you're talking about crops.

Emily Brewster: Only literally.

Ammon Shea: Right. And then, other people said, well, what about beards? So, they said, okay, well grow is a transitive verb only if you're talking about tomatoes or beards, and you can't grow the economy. And it's kind of like, once you start the transitive ball rolling, it's really hard to stop.

Neil Serven: I can see part of the objection possibly being that the subject of the economy, and there's this whole political spectrum of people who think the economy should be left alone. Laissez-faire economics. And so if you're growing the economy, a person is having an active hand on something. And so the expression in language is that we are putting our hand on the scale or something. There's an idea behind that. If we make an analogous to growing plants, growing hair, there's like an active agency that I think should. And the idea that people just don't object to in its own right, and so objecting to the language behind it is kind of this indirect way.

Ammon Shea: Right. Absolutely.

Emily Brewster: Neil, are you suggesting that ideology would then affect a person's regard for language development.

Neil Serven: I've heard this happening. I don't know if it really happens.

Ammon Shea: Never seen it in the wild. I think the thing about transitive verbs though, it's kind of like being transitive is like being pregnant. You can't just be pregnant on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and you can't just be transitive for tomatoes and beards. You're either transitive or you're not, and once we open the transitive gates, the economy can be grown.

Emily Brewster: Well, the shift from literal to figurative is such a natural progression for a verb to take semantically. Or, for any word, actually. That is always what's going to happen. It's kind of shocking when a word does not take on figurative use.

Ammon Shea: Right.

Peter Sokolowski: The thing is language still is a habit. So, for example, I don't use impact as a verb just because I didn't grow up hearing it, or it was disparaged around me enough that I wouldn't die for your right to do it. I just choose not to do it. "Grow your business" seems pretty idiomatic now. But, there's other examples like access, for example, which similarly is a noun and a verb. And as a verb, it only dates to the mid 20th century. And yet, nobody complains about that. People still complain about impact, but not about access. And again, I think it's familiarity. I think we have heard this five times a day, only in the last couple of decades, but that's enough. That's certainly plenty for language to change. And so, access, for example, is a full fledged verb now and nobody complains about it. And yet, when I used it as a verb in an academic article 25 years ago, it was crossed out and in red ink the editor wrote, computer jargon. And so, it was refused then, and I can't imagine anyone refusing it today.

Emily Brewster: That has something to do, I think, with what computer jargon has become.

Peter Sokolowski: Sure. Sure.

Emily Brewster: So much of computer jargon has become the language of everyday discourse.

Ammon Shea: Absolutely.

Neil Serven: Right.

Ammon Shea: Absolutely.

Emily Brewster: I feel like the best thing that impact has going for it, is actually a very important thing, that it steps in where the word affect brings great terror upon people, because they don't know which affect to use, because affect and effect, with an E or with an A, sound exactly the same. They have these overlapping meanings. One's typically a verb. One's typically a noun. But, if you don't know which one to use, if you're looking for the verb, you can just say impact.

Peter Sokolowski: Interesting.

Ammon Shea: Sure. That's great.

Neil Serven: It's got the vision of being a little more of a powerful verb, too, than affect. You can see the dent going in the wall or something.

Emily Brewster: That's right. Or, the tooth pressing up against the other tooth.

Neil Serven: The tooth pressing on the other tooth.

Ammon Shea: Plus, it gives you the added benefit of knowing that there's a higher chance that somebody in your audience is sitting there grinding their teeth when you talk. You can't put a price on that.

Emily Brewster: Let us know what you think about Word Matters. Review us on Apple podcasts, or email us at wordmatters@merriam-webster.com. You can also visit us at anypm.org, and for the Word of the Day and all your general dictionary needs, visit merriam-webster.com. Our theme music is by Tobias Voigt. Artwork by Annie Jacobson. Word Matters is produced by Adam Maid and John Voci. For Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, and Peter Sokolowski, I'm Emily Brewster. Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

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