Digging a little deeper into the infrastructure

The catchall term for roads and bridges and all that other stuff is a mouthful, but what would we do without it?

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One of the pleasures of riding the Red Line subway between Boston and Cambridge is that moment when the train emerges from its tunnel to cross the Charles River. For a few moments passengers get an impressive skyline view of both cities from the century-old Longfellow Bridge. If the windows of the train are at all clean, the view is usually enough to make me reflect, Hey, this isn't a bad place to live, is it?

For much of the summer, this magical moment was extended somewhat – not, alas, for aesthetic reasons. The Federal Highway Administration had asked that the trains be held to 10 m.p.h. on the bridge until necessary repairs could be made.

The repairs to the Longfellow, the utility trucks out digging up my street, and probably somebody else digging up your street, too, are all indications that infrastructure is hot – or as hot as it's likely to get. It's partly the summer construction season. It's partly the feeling that today's weak economy might benefit from some of the programs introduced during the Depression of the 1930s. (Did I hear someone say "Works Progress Administration"?) And it's partly the slowly dawning realization that what is built must also be maintained.

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What would we do without infrastructure, the stuff – streets, roads, bridges, water and sewer lines, gas lines, telephone lines, television cables? Not much. And what would we do without infrastructure, the word? It's a mouthful, but it's a useful mouthful, because it encapsulates all those other elements.

Still, it's an awfully wonky term. In the raft of news stories launched by the collapse of the Mianus River Bridge in Connecticut in 1983, there was a tendency to gloss infrastructure as "roads and bridges." If I say I need to go buy "groceries," on the other hand, I don't feel a need to explain in the next breath, "fruit and vegetables and meat and dairy products."

In the coverage of the collapse of the I-35W bridge last summer in Minnesota, however, infrastructure seemed to require less explanation.

Most words develop over centuries. It's relatively rare to find a word traced to a specific year, and a year within the past century to boot. But so it was when I checked out infrastructure: 1927, several online dictionaries reported. It was a military usage, a borrowing from the French, who were first recorded using it in 1875.

Infrastructure is a compound of infra, meaning beneath, and structure, meaning, well, obviously, "structure." It might be a little cheeky to suggest that infrastructure is the underwear of the body politic.

Infra has a fraternal twin, ultra, meaning "beyond." The two are neatly symmetrical at opposite ends of the spectrum – ultraviolet and infrared. And ultra shows up in a lot of places: technical terms, ("ultrahigh frequency") and ideological descriptors (ultraconservative or ultramodern), as well as 50-cent words like ultramundane, "beyond the limits of the solar system."

Infra, on the other hand, doesn't get around so much. It's one of the roots of inferior, and may, for all I know, feel inferior. Infra also has a connection with fracas, which is a breaking up or a shaking up from below.

By definition, good infrastructure is in the background, below the surface. If infrastructure, the word, is becoming too familiar, that may be a sign that there's a problem with infrastructure, the thing.

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