In the 1964 printing of Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language, College Edition, “facility” has four definitions, only one of which refers even remotely to something physical: “the means by which something can be more easily done; conveniences: as, good transportation facilities.” The 1975 New College Edition of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language has a similar entry, but also one for an “informal” usage of “facilities”: “The available toilet arrangements.”
By the 1982 printing of the Second College Edition of WNW, there’s a new definition of “facility”: “a building, special room, etc. that facilitates or makes possible some activity [a new facility for outpatient treatment].”
“Facility” comes from old words for “ease,” and that it what it has traditionally meant: The ability to do something easily or with skill. For years, newspaper style guides cautioned against using “facility” in place of “building”: “This overused term should be replaced whenever possible by a more specific substitute: office, base (military), installation, pier, building, etc.,” says the 1976 edition of The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage.
The Oxford English Dictionary blames Americans for this usage, tracing it to an 1848 New Orleans complaint about “postal facilities.” (Some things never change.)
But “facility” kept showing up in building names, as in “the Downstate Correctional Facility,” so writers have been all but forced to use it. They use it even when it is redundant, as in “the prison facility,” which could just as easily be “prison,” and should be.
The Times stylebook now says “facilities” is “an acceptable general term for buildings, plants, recreational equipment and the like.” But it also says: “The singular facility, applied to an individual place, is bureaucratic and should be replaced by specifics when possible: base, building, factory, laboratory, office, pier, plant, warehouse, etc.”
Many buildings and offices have “facilities managers,” and what they manage varies widely, from the copy machines and conference rooms to the, uh, facilities. But as a singular, Garner’s Modern American Usage notes that “facility” “has become virtually meaningless. The word is so abstract that it refers to just about anything, from an Olympic village to a toilet.”
The stadium served by that Olympic village might be called “a facility,” but nowadays, it’s more likely to be called a “venue.” Garner’s calls “venue” a “vogue word,” a “linguistic fad,” but on the list of “fairly durable” fads.
“Venue” is durable enough to make it into the Times stylebook, which mirrors its outlook on “facility”: “When possible, use a more specific term: club, theater, arena, stadium. Venues is acceptable as a plural in reference to different types of settings: None of the Olympic venues were ready. Venue is appropriate in the legal expression change of venue.”
“Venue” used to have only legal applications; that 1964 dictionary lists only definitions related to laws and trials and localities. But at least it has its roots in words meaning “to come,” as to a place. The OED shows a gradual shift of “venue” from the “scene of a real or supposed action or event” in 1843 to the “site of a theatrical performance,” in 1967. Now, anywhere an event happens might be called a “venue,” including a park, wedding chapel, or even an online site, a virtual venue.
Dictionaries now include “venue” as “the scene or locale of a large gathering, as for a sports event or rock concert,” as the Fourth Edition of WNW College now says. And while the Associated Press has no specific entry for either “facility” or “venue,” it uses both terms throughout, giving them tacit approval.
Even so, Garner’s has a point that both “facility” and “venue” are vague. Most of the time, use your facilities: Seek a change of venue and use “prison,” or “stadium,” or “concert hall.”