Deaglán de Bréadún: An Irishman’s Diary on referencing impactful, annoying words

‘On the face of it, counterfactual appears to be just a ponderous way of saying false or untrue’

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar ‘referenced’ his intentions for the budget. Photograph: Cyril Byrne / THE IRISH TIMES

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar ‘referenced’ his intentions for the budget. Photograph: Cyril Byrne / THE IRISH TIMES


Rip Van Winkle fell asleep for 20 years and woke up in a very different world. These days, if you stop following the broadcast and print media for a few weeks, when you start again the language has changed and new words and expressions have become common currency.

Innovation should generally be encouraged, but when a perfectly-serviceable word is already in common use, why replace it?

Take “mention” for example. A daarlin’ word, as Joxer Daly might say in Juno and the Paycock. But “mention” has been virtually displaced as a verb by “reference”. Cock an ear to the radio or television and a penny will get you a pound (sorry, cent and euro don’t alliterate) that someone will be talking about how Donald Trump “referenced” his plan for a wall with Mexico or Taoiseach Leo Varadkar “referenced” his intentions for the forthcoming budget.

The term “referred to” would be quite acceptable, but it is rarely used any more.

Where I come from, “reference” is a noun that mainly applies to a letter of commendation when you are looking for a job, or it could be a citation in some scholarly work.

When it first began to be used as a verb, I would mutter “pretentious git” under my breath, but in a very short period it has become the norm. The battle is lost and if Frank Sinatra was singing My Way at present, he would have to say that his regrets were “too few to reference” because “mention” is virtually outlawed.

Another one that drives me up the wall is “impact”. Don’t get me wrong: it is perfectly acceptable as a noun, eg, “The stock market decline had an impact on the level of employment.” But somehow it has somehow managed to sneak into common usage as a verb, so that these days the fall in shares “impacts” the number at work.

Forget ‘effective’

In a previous and very recent era, it would be said that the bad news from Wall Street “affects” the employment rate. One suspects that people use “impact” instead of “affect” because they want to appear hip and trendy.

Even worse is when they slip in “impactful”, as in “World Bank policies have proven very impactful in reducing the number of people out of work.”

Forget “effective”, or everyone will think you’re one of those Rip Van Winkle types.

It can be said by way of mitigation that when someone uses “reference” or “impact” as a verb, the meaning is at least clear. The same is not always the case with “counterfactual”.

On the face of it, this appears to be just a ponderous way of saying “false” or “untrue”. But it can also be used as substitute for “fictional” or “imaginary”.

It has certainly caught on, along with its soul-brother, “counterintuitive”, which is used as a substitute for “illogical”, “contrary to common sense”, “foolish”, “flying in the face of received wisdom” and even, in some cases, “unconventional”.


Like “counterfactual”, it’s got plenty of syllables and posh types insist on using the term, even if a high proportion of their audience don’t understand it.

And then there’s “process”. There was no problem when it was just referring to (I almost wrote “referencing“) the production of tins of peas or, indeed, the peace-making efforts in Northern Ireland. But now it is used to describe coming to terms in your mind with some development or other, eg, “I won five million in the Lottery but it took me ages to process the news.”

And don’t forget “concerning”, as in “The prospect of a hard Brexit is concerning.” Whatever happened to “worrying”?

Another wince-factor nowadays is the prevalence of mispronunciations, such as “torturous” for “tortuous”. The speaker is usually referring to a protracted sequence of events but not one that involves inflicting pain, except on the listener.

Have you noticed how many people have clearly never heard of “criterion” and believe that “criteria” is singular?

The biggest horror of all – and we don’t need to go into its origins – is “ballsy” for “courageous”.

It’s bad enough when used about men but it has also been applied to women. Up North, the parties have been negotiating about an Irish Language Act/Acht na Gaeilge. But maybe it is time for an English Language Act, otherwise Acht an Bhéarla, to halt the decline of the Anglo-Saxon tongue in both jurisdictions.

Let’s organise a march using Father Ted’s slogan, “Down with this sort of thing.”