|Photo by Howard Arlander|
So what is it, exactly? With Congress in tension over two bills on infrastructure, one being on the traditional kinds of infrastructure, such as roads and bridges, and Progressives in the House pushing for a more expansive bill that would include things like working to abate climate change and poverty, and expand things like Medicare and childcare, I'm curious about where the word came from and what it meant in the beginning.
Surprisingly, to me anyway, the word actually comes to us from French. It was made of two Latin components, but was never actually used in ancient times. It was coined by the French in 1875 and was first used in English not long after, in 1887. Infra means "under or below" in Latin, and "structure" comes from the Latin structura, which the Online Etymology Dictionary tells us meant, "a fitting together, adjustment; a building, mode of building". Fairly broad, in other words. The French, according to Merriam Webster's site, used it originally to mean what in English we already called "substructure," as in the foundation of a building, road or railroad bed.
|Photo by Niilo Isotalo|
But the word took on new meaning and vitality after World War II, as NATO came into existence and started building airfields, railroads and military bases in response to the Cold War. The word migrated from French to English as these military groups worked together. An interesting Merriam Webster article on this word talks about how war can lead to a parallel invasion of new words as well, as happened during the 11th century Norman Conquest of Britain, which brought many Latinate words from French into the English vocabulary.
So the word "infrastructure" entered the English language with many military associations which were not part of the original French coinage. But as is the way with language, it began to be applied to other spheres. The Merriam Webster article says that "infrastructure" quickly had an added definition "the system of public works of a country, state or region." Which is not so much a departure from military usage as a sidestep to a larger governmental one.
Avenue de l'Opera by Camille Pissarro
(Haussmann's renovation of Paris in the mid 1800s may not have been termed infrastructure by the French at the time, but it was definitely a public works project.)
But "public works" is itself a vast and sometimes abstract concept, and now includes things that are not large physical building projects like bridge building and road making, but communication systems and electrical systems. And also the human beings who will be needed to organize and run all these things. Yes, you could say that there is a bit of mission creep going on with this word, but you could just as easily say that the definition of the word expanded as people came to understand the many facets of life to which it was applicable.
So it's no coincidence that the bigger bill that Biden and many of the House Democrats are pushing has come to include caregivers and teachers and healthcare. It turns out that it takes an awful lot to keep a human system running.