'Infrastructure': A New Word from Old Roots

A solid word that's also flexible

The influx of Latin-based French words into English following the Norman invasion of 1066 can be viewed as the cultural consequences of war. Indeed, the word consequences is one of those that entered English from French in the first centuries following the Norman Conquest and before the advent of the printing press, a period of great change in the vocabulary of English through the introduction of words from the language of the conquering power.

A modern echo of this history took place when the word infrastructure came into English: it’s also a Latin-based French word that entered English because of a war.

overlapping highways

'Infrastructure': it's all around you

The Latin roots of infrastructure mean simply “underneath or below the structure.” This word was in fact never used by Romans; it was coined in French from Latin parts in the late 1800s, initially used (unsurprisingly) to refer to the substructure or foundation of a building, road, or railroad bed. Of the handful of other English words that use the prefix infra-, infrared the most common.

English, of course, already had the words substructure and foundation by that time, but a more narrow use of infrastructure in French caught on in English following World War II, as western Europe was both rebuilding and preparing for the new political and military paradigm of the Cold War. In English, infrastructure was initially widely used in the context of building military bases, railroads, and airfields for use by NATO forces:

The vast “infrastructure” program of Allied airfields, barracks, railways, roads, depots and joint headquarters is now reported progressing well.
The New York Times, 28 September 1952

It is because of this that we have a specifically military definition in our dictionary:

: the permanent installations required for military purposes

Our citation files include some evidence that this new term required some explanation:

The French have a word for it—infrastructure. Now it’s in general use among western military men and diplomats.
Springfield (MA) Union, 22 February 1952

Not only explanation, it turns out, but even apologies were issued for this neologism that had entered the vocabulary of government officials, from as high up as President Truman’s Secretary of State Dean Acheson. One newspaper account of his remarks on the subject carried the headline ACHESON APOLOGIZES FOR SILLY U.S. NAME:

Diplomatic gobbledegook can get so bad even diplomats apologize for it.

Secretary of State Acheson in his report to the nation last night on the Lisbon meetings of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization said airfields and port facilities were called “infra-structures.”

He said he couldn’t explain how they came to be called that, and added: “Despite this heavy handicap, good progress was made.”
Springfield Daily News, 1 March 1952

From this initial military construction use, it’s clear that infrastructure quickly became a more general term for “the system of public works of a country, state, or region.” This is the now-common “roads and bridges” meaning of the term.

Public works” refers to schools, bridges, and highways, to be sure, but has also expanded over time to include telephone lines and delivery of electricity and broadband. This definition also encompasses the resources, organization, and personnel who will do the work—an organized system for building is itself a necessary structure.

It’s clear, then, that infrastructure has both concrete (“physical infrastructure,” “transportation infrastructure”) and more figurative uses (“information infrastructure,” “social infrastructure”). Our first definition includes this further elaboration:

also: the resources (such as personnel, buildings, or equipment) required for an activity

Even our original definition of infrastructure, from its first published entry in a Merriam-Webster dictionary in 1955, described the “underlying foundation or basic framework of an organization or system,” and so was not limited only to the construction of roads and bridges.

Terms connected to building things lend themselves easily to metaphor, so it should come as no surprise that infrastructure would have extensive use in this extended meaning. Just think of a few construction terms and their clearly figurative usages, like “social structures” or even “the Ford Foundation.” Or the many idioms we have in English that use words that name construction materials:

nerves of steel

heart of stone

solid as a rock

weigh a ton

wooden style

stiff as a board

bang your head against the wall

pillar of the community

And as for “roads and bridges,” keep in mind that the idiom to build bridges is used to refer to things that cars or trains can cross far less frequently than it is used to refer to ideas that connect people. Sometimes the literal use of a given set of words is, well, the road less traveled.