Do we really need infrastructure?
The word, I mean.
It has been in wide use only since the mid-20th century, and it doesn’t exactly set hearts aflutter.
Infrastructure is in the news recently because Donald Trump has unveiled a plan to rebuild, repair and/or privatize parts of it.
We’ll see. Politicians have a long history of speaking grandly of, but doing very little about, infrastructure.
Perhaps they should first coin a more inviting term. Infrastructure has three flaws:
• It’s a bureaucratic term that normal people don’t say. Can you imagine leaning over the back fence with your neighbor and saying infrastructure? I can’t — even if I were leaning on the infrastructure.
• It describes the foundational elements that make just about everything — from interstate highways to the internet and city plumbing — work. The term is so vast and ever-expanding, it seems impossible to comprehend.
• It has been preceded by crumbling in news reports for so long, I can’t even say infrastructure without hearing it creak and watching it leak oil.
So it’s ugly, overwhelming and associated with failure. No wonder nothing ever gets fixed.
When did we begin saying infrastructure?
The word originated in France in the 19th century, when it was used to described the underlayment beneath railroad tracks, according to several sources.
Google’s Ngram Viewer, which charts how often terms are used in books, shows relatively few references to infrastructure in English until after World War II, when American military planners adopted it as a way to describe the interrelated systems — airfields, communications, housing, supplies — necessary to conduct war.
No sooner did it gain some popularity than writers began apologizing for using it.
“Infrastructure is one of those long, dull words,” wrote Theodore H. White in a newspaper column on Cold War needs in 1951. He went on to argue that, boring as it might sound, we ought to pay attention to the military infrastructure.
From there, it drifted into civilian life to describe roads, bridges, sewers, pipelines, the electric grid and other underlying necessities for modern life.
The word gained strength, if not affection, through the rest of the 20th century. Infrastructure appeared once in The Columbus Dispatch in 1954 and 270 times in 2017.
Alex Marshall, in a 2015 column for “Governing’ magazine, argued that the word properly replaced what the country used to call “public works” (and before that “internal improvements”) because it conveys an important sense of interrelatedness.
But even he said he hates the sound of it.
Much as we dislike infrastructure, we probably ought to do something about it one of these decades.
Collapsed infrastructure sounds even worse.
Joe Blundo is a columnist for the Columbus Dispatch. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @joeblundo.