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As early as 1950, Winston Churchill was already bewailing the migration of this esoteric term from engineering into the whole realm of human designs. “In this debate,” he complained in the House of Commons, “we have heard the usual jargon about the ‘infrastructure of a supra-national authority.'” (Not only has the jargon not changed in half a century, but apparently neither has the prime topic of debate in the House of Commons.)

Churchill’s comment not only took aim at jargon but cleverly poked fun at a subtle absurdity, as well: the “infra” in INFRASTRUCTURE means “below,” and it’s the opposite of “supra.” “Supra-national infra-structure” would seem to describe whatever lies below the things that rise above nations.

INFRASTRUCTURE’S Latin roots strictly mean what lies beneath (or within) things that are built. In that sense, steel girders and wooden beams are infrastructure. Subways and sewer pipes, too. It’s harder to understand why a bridge qualifies as infrastructure, though civil engineering does seem to classify a soaring span as if it were just a piece of undergirding that managed to climb into full view-like the underpants defiantly hiked above the belts of modern teenagers.

The problem with INFRASTRUCTURE is that, as metaphors go, it is often a good one-too good by half. Yes, many organizations do need to improve the hidden, back-office functions that are the bureaucratic equivalent of beams and girders. New projects usually do need offices, computers, phone lines, bank accounts, technical advisers, and contractors-all the mundane rigmarole that stands behind a successful effort. The word fits those usages, but it fits a great many others, too. Everything, one presumes, would benefit from the strengthening of some hidden component parts. Is everything, therefore, an infrastructure project? Ever since Churchill’s day (and evidently for some time before that), the word has been applied metaphorically to so many things that it is now quite impossible to know which thing it is supposed to invoke in any given context.

Used sparingly, in situations where some kind of construction or engineering is under way, the word still has some frail integrity left. But in most cases, it is simply a grandiloquent stand-in for “component parts,” “elements,” “organization,” or, in management circles, “administrative functions.” Clarity would usually be served best by saying just which of those things is meant.

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