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Legacy: Formerly Regal Word Turned Euphemism for Aged Leftovers

How "legacy" became our era's most over-the-top euphemism for a something between a bingo room and the grave (and landmines).

How "legacy" became our era's most over-the-top euphemism for something between a bingo room and the grave (and landmines).

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but the legacy of the word “legacy” has taken a B.S.-soaked turn.

The Tron sequel isn’t Tron 2, but Tron: Legacy. The latest version of The Pretenders has been described as “a so-called legacy act—one that relies almost entirely on decades-old hits.” “Legacy airlines” are really, really old airlines, while our dying newspapers can take comfort in having “legacy newsrooms,” and fossil-fuel-caused damage to the environment is sometimes known as “legacy effects.” Quietly, “legacy” has become one of our most pretentious, preposterous, and euphemistic words.

“Legacy” smells most fishy when used as an adjective, though some examples are fairly tame, like the “Legacy Mode” of a boxing video game, or a reference in the Chicago Tribune to “legacy wine.” In the omnipresent, annoying world of branding, there are issues such as “Maximizing the Potential of Multi-Drug Portfolios Without Cannibalizing from a Legacy Brand.” In these cases, “legacy” is mainly a way of not saying “long in the tooth,” an avoidance made explicit in a comment by Dennis Howlett that refers to “the old, legacy way of the world.”

If these were the only uses, I would hardly have thought “legacy” worth a column. But the B.S. gets piled deeper and weirder. Look at this reference to the omnipresent Conan O’Brien by Scott Collins in the Los Angeles Times: “...O'Brien's switch from legacy broadcaster to basic-cable outpost represents a hugely symbolic moment in the evolution of late-night TV, as the audience tilts away from aging franchises such as ‘Tonight’ to younger competitors.” My decoder ring exploded trying to figure out that one, but another use of “legacy broadcaster” (about ABC) supports my theory that “legacy” almost always conveys a status somewhere between the bingo hall and the grave: “If we are to survive as anything more than a shell—a legacy broadcaster, an empire in decline—this is what we must do.”

Still, “legacy broadcaster” seems positively transparent and straightforward next to a term used by Eric Johnson in Metro Spirit: “They call it legacy waste. It’s the radioactive leftovers from the Cold War and, ever since the Cold War ended, the Savannah River Site has been making sure those leftovers will never be warmed up and used for weapons again.” Then there’s this example I spied in a 2009 article by Eric Patterson: “Sadly, legacy landmines—some of which have been in the ground for decades—do not discriminate between warriors and innocents, making them an additional passive, yet deadly, disruptor of prosperity.” Legacy waste? Legacy landmines? If the expression “lipstick on a pig” didn’t exist, you’d have to invent it to describe these ridiculous terms.

So how did “legacy” get besmirched? The spread of “legacy assets”—a transparent rebranding of toxic assets—was influential a couple years ago, but the history goes deeper. The primary parent of this horsecrap seems to be a computer-related sense, which the OED traces to 1989 and defines as “Designating software or hardware which, although outdated or limiting, is an integral part of a computer system and difficult to replace.” This meaning can be found in recent examples of legacy applications, platforms, interfaces, devices, networks, servers and the absurdly named “legacy customer relationship management tools.” One OED example (from 1993) suggests how extended and distended this word would become: “Too many IT people ossify with the IT they are comfortable with—they become legacy people, and that's dangerous.”

Other legacy silliness may be related to the sense of a “legacy” as someone who applies to a college or frat that a family member attended, thereby greasing the wheels of admission. This meaning goes all the way back to 1930, and a 1974 quote shows how these lucky few are regarded: “Legacies, the sons of members who've done a lot for the Club who get in ... are disappointments.” You can see how this meaning may have led to “legacy” being applied to all sorts of undesirable stuff that history dumped in our collective lap.

It’s a bummer to see the watering down of a word should feel weighty. Recent articles about the legacy of John Lennon and Elizabeth Edwards are a reminder that “legacy” can still pack a punch and have solid, substantial meaning. When I hear “legacy,” I don’t want to think about toxic waste, landmines, or piece-of-crap computer equipment. You can’t stop word evolution, but in this case, I wish I could.

Then again, as I get older, maybe this all-purpose word could serve my own crass needs. By the time I’m old enough for senior moments in the nursing home, I bet rebranding will allow me to say I’m having legacy lapses in a luxurious legacy land. And I’m sure I’ll never need an adult diaper—not when I’m swaddled in the tight embrace of my legacy loincloth.

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