Digging for 'infrastructure' in the OED

The Monitor’s language columnist admits grudging admiration a wonky but useful term that covers a lot of important 'stuff.'

Infrastructure. Is there a less sexy word in English? One less likely to make anyone's heart beat faster? Would an orator like Winston Churchill have used such a word?

Those thoughts presented themselves the other day as I listened to a report about President Obama's recent trip to New Orleans. Evidently seeking a little relief from the health-care website drama, he left Washington to plump for investments in infrastructure.

Here's what his spokesman, Jay Carney, had to say about it: "The virtue of investment in infrastructure is that it's a double win because you get the immediate effect of building and the jobs created from that and the economic energy and activity created by that, and then the long-term benefit to the economy of improved infrastructure, whether it's ports or airports or roads or highways or bridges."

I'd have thought that presidential spokespeople would have a rule against using infrastructure twice in one sentence. But to his credit, Mr. Carney managed to do so in an utterance that at least parsed grammatically.

Infrastructure comes from Latin words meaning, literally, "the structure beneath," and the ancient Romans built a lot of it, some of which remains today.

But infrastructure is a modern word. It came into English as a direct borrowing from French. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) notes that the word was found in the Dictionnaire Robert of 1875. That was a time of the building of railroad lines, public water systems, telegraph lines – the fiber-optic cables of their day.

The first usage example in English the OED cites is from 1927, a reference to a railroad in the south of France: "The tunnels, bridges, culverts, and 'infrastructure' work generally of the Ax to Bourg-Madame line have been completed."

The term seems to have caught on midcentury to describe a lot of the stuff that got built as part of what was known as "the war effort." As the European Review noted in 1951, in another usage example OED cites, "This new term 'infrastructure'... denotes fixed military facilities such as airfields, base installations and transport systems."

By the late 1970s and early '80s, infra­structure, usually glossed as "roads and bridges," was creeping into mass media news reports. Some high-profile bridge collapses prompted major efforts at safety review and reconstruction.

Infrastructure never lost its wonky tone, but it referred to something that clearly needed attention.

A literal-minded civil engineer would point out that irony is not what you want when you're building, or rebuilding, a bridge. But there is an irony in infrastructure. It often refers to things that are quite concrete; in fact, to things that are made of concrete. But the word can also be adapted to metaphorical use. The OED cites, for instance, a writer on music (1956): "What I call the infrastructure is the regularly produced two- or four-beat meter (2/2 or 4/4 measure) that characterizes any jazz performance."

A few years before, Winston Churchill had harrumphed in the House of Commons, "In this Debate we have had the usual jargon about 'the infrastructure of a supra-national authority.' " Note that he was using the term not only metaphorically, but pejoratively.

It's a wonky term, all right, but I have to admit a grudging admiration for its capacity to bring "all that stuff" under one umbrella. It knows its stuff, and it does its work.

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