May 23, 2016

A vague yet important-sounding way of saying “having a big effect” that is finding a home in politics after becoming a corporate buzzword.

“Impactful” is generating something of a, well, impactful response. Writing on the Donald W. Reynolds Center for National Business Journalism’s website this month, Debbi G. McCullough described the adjective as “annoying.” In a Foreign Policy blog post headlined “Sentences That Drive Us Nuts,” national-security reporter Tom Ricks included a contribution from Duke University political scientist Peter Feaver about a “grand strategy” that is “agile, adaptive, and impactful.”

It also has sparked a years-long debate on the question-and-answer website Quora about whether it should be considered a word at all. The original poster called it “a mangled stepchild of the word ‘impact.’’’

At least some of this is a reaction to the word’s increasingly common political use. National Review this month quoted Mark Holden, general counsel of Koch Industries and chairman of Freedom Partners, as saying the billionaire Koch brothers’ GOP political activity has slowed because 2016 has not offered “the same opportunities for us to be impactful in a principled way at the federal level” as in the past.

Meanwhile, Stephanie Hannon, a former Google executive who is now a top digital strategist for Hillary Clinton, promised Politico that her campaign had many tech ideas that it would be unveiling. “Some of the best stuff, the most impactful stuff, we just won’t talk about until November,” she said.

And after Clinton won last month’s Pennsylvania Democratic primary, the vice president of the University of Pennsylvania’s Penn for Hillary, Robert Klein, took a respectful tone with rival Bernie Sanders: “He has waged a very impactful campaign, and he’s reached a lot of people and created a lot of energy.”

Congressional use of “impactful” has spiked in recent years, according to the Sunlight Foundation’s invaluable website tracking word preferences in House and Senate floor debates.  

It’s popular among both Democrats and Republicans. The most frequent user? Arizona’s John McCain (R), the Senate Armed Services Committee chairman and unsuccessful 2008 GOP nominee. McCain has employed it to praise others – “You have sometimes been a lonely voice, but you have always been an impactful voice,” he said at a March hearing – as well as to self-deprecatingly downplay his political insights: “Being a loser, I’m not sure what I have to say would be very impactful.”

Like it or not, “impactful” is here to stay, the website Grammarist predicts. It noted one common complaint is that it’s substituted for “powerful” and “influential,” but added: “While this might be true in some cases, the fact that impactful has become so entrenched in the language suggests that many people don’t find it to be an exact synonym of those words and that it has shades of meaning all its own.”

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