Leaving - and finding - legacies all over the place

Legacy, thy name is Dubya. But also Subaru. And don't forget Hewlett-Packard either. It's not uncommon for a word to be suddenly on everyone's lips. Sometimes the word-of-the-moment seems to move through the English-speaking world like "the wave" at a crowded ballpark.

But what's odd about "legacy," which seems to be a word of this moment, is the way it is appearing in so many contexts, with meanings that tend in two very different directions.

A "legacy" is that which someone has bequeathed to someone else; the word derives from a Latin word meaning "to bequeath." Since we also have the words "inheritance" (as on the bumper stickers, "I'm spending my kids' inheritance") and "bequest," more frequently used to refer to money willed to an institution, "legacy" is used more metaphorically.

Thus the self-improvement gurus like Stephen Covey ask their seminar audiences to think about "leaving a legacy" that they can be proud of.

But "legacy" retains that sense of "something one has inherited." What one has inherited, one has not chosen.

So the word has this odd double life, referring both to "that which remains," in a positive sense, that which endures (e.g., the Acropolis of Athens) and to "that which is left over," as in, "What are we going to DO with it?" Who knows? We may be about six months away from "legacy" becoming slang for "so-o yesterday." ("Her mom's OK, but she has a legacy stepdad you won't believe.")

More seriously, a "legacy" is often something we try to escape. The Vietnam War, for instance, is described as having left a "messy legacy."

Universities refer to students admitted on the basis of their family ties as "legacies." The practice is objected to by some as amounting to a form of "affirmative action" on behalf of the overprivileged.

The best-known "legacy" at the moment is President Bush himself, widely rumored to have gotten into Yale on the basis of his father's having graduated from there. Earlier this month, though, he told an audience of minority journalists that legacy admissions should be abolished; admissions should be "based on merit."

There are other "legacies" out there. The other day a friend of mine spoke of a man she knows as having a "legacy" job; that is, he had been "bequeathed" from one employer to another after a corporate merger. "Legacy" is also used to describe carriers old enough to predate the airline deregulation of 1978. It sounds like an oblique way of raising the question, "How do these dinosaurs keep flying?" (The airlines themselves presumably wonder about that from day to day.) The world of electronics speaks of "legacy software" and "legacy systems." Here, too, the L-word seems to suggest something along the lines of "quaint," which is not generally what one wants from one's IT department. "Legacy" lives on as the name of a car made by Subaru, evidently marketed to those wanting a car that's not their father's Oldsmobile. ("Would you buy a used Legacy from this man?")

I can imagine a company where the baby boomer boss is off at an executive retreat being asked to do "visioning exercises" to come up with a meaningful "legacy," while, back at the office, the Gen X guy in IT is trying to figure out the "legacy software" on the boss's computer, and the Gen Y mailroom clerk is hoping to cop some "legacy" half and half from the break-room fridge.

This column appears with links at: weblogs.csmonitor.com/verbal_energy

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