I talked last week to New York-based journalist Zoe Henry about the worst buzzwords of the year so far, and her article for Inc.com follows.
Here, first, are some of the points that came up in our conversation.
‘I think we can and should distinguish between business or corporate buzzwords (like ‘disruption’, ‘digital native’, ‘pivot’), political buzzwords (‘libertarian’, ‘alt-right’, ‘antifa’, ‘fake news’ in the US; ‘brexiteer’, ‘remoaner’, most recently ‘mutineer’ in the UK) and lifestyle buzzwords (‘side-hustle’, ‘woke’, ‘influencers’). There are however some words that overlap these categories: ‘resilience’ is one that is still trending in the UK in 2017, ‘storytelling’ and ‘holistic’ are others. I think it’s especially significant that examples of political/sociocultural discourse like ‘weaponize’, ‘elite’, ‘toxic’, and slangy terms like ‘snowflake’, ‘cuck’ or ‘libtard’ have dominated the conversation on both sides of the Atlantic in 2017. These are expressions that both reflect and evoke the unprecedented conflict and division in society that have been witnessed since the US election and the UK’s EU referendum.
Tedious buzztalk has increasingly involved generational or generationalist categorisation, conflict or prejudice: ‘Generation Z’, ‘parennials’, ‘centennials’ – ‘snowflakes’ again – are examples of the terms in use: opinion pieces listing millennials’ supposed failings or misdeeds are commonplace. This kind of language is evidence of commerce, politicians and the media trying to stage and exploit imagined or real ‘disconnects’ between babyboomers, millennials and the intervening Generation X, not for the common good but for their own devious purposes.
A word like ’empathy’ – an existing word and concept which suddenly starts trending -may be annoying when it’s over-used but points to something important happening in society. In this case the need to refocus on this quality in a divided, hypercompetitive and often uncaring environment.
Nearly all buzzwords follow the same trajectory:
- A buzzword appears and catches on because it defines some important innovation (‘AI’ for example or ‘fintech’, ‘blockchain’, ‘cryptocurrency’, ‘algorithm’ or ‘internet of things’) – a new device, process, way of behaving, a fashion or fashion item or fad. The ‘buzz’ comes about naturally if the new concept is truly significant, or artificially because it is hyped by the media.
- People who want to appear up-to-date or ‘cool’ adopt the buzzword (whether they fully understand it or not – ‘digital’ or ‘mindfulness’ are often cited, ‘portability’ is another offender) in order to impress – or if they are part of the corporate sphere, to assert their power, to dominate. The user of the jargon presents themselves as an informed progressive insider: those who don’t use the jargon are excluded or subordinated.
- The buzzword is over-used and becomes a cliche: the phrase ‘reach out’ and the word ‘craft’ are cases in point. It may be ridiculed and mocked by sophisticates, castigated by self-appointed guardians of traditional language (but some people will go on using it nevertheless).
- Buzzwords eventually fall out of favour but this doesn’t happen quickly. Terms like ‘think outside the box’, often singled out in surveys as a recent irritant have actually been ‘on trend’ for a decade. ‘Frictionless’ has been around for some time but is just now at peak popularity, while one of Macmillan’s Dictionary’s words of 2017, ‘maximalism’ featured in Shoot the Puppy, my dictionary of buzzwords published in 2006, (which also listed the by-then-ten-year-old metaphorical meaning of ‘bandwidth’, on Zoe Henry’s hitlist and discussed today by Merriam Webster’s word-watchers: https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/what-is-the-new-meaning-of-bandwidth)’
(On a personal note I must admit that there are some labels or catchphrases that, however contentious or ludicrous they are, don’t especially upset me: both ‘centrist dad’, coined in the UK to deride middle-aged males who are too liberal either to embrace the left or attack the right, and ‘hand-wringing metropolitan elitist’, a slur beloved of conservatives, if I’m honest seem to describe me perfectly.)
Here, then is Zoe’s article, with her own selection of 2017’s worst buzzwords:
…And here is my earlier piece on the same subject from The Conversation in which I try to make the point that buzzwords may not always merit only condemnation:
…Coincidentally, 24 hours after the above was posted, Andre Spicer, castigator of ‘business bullshit’, writes in The Guardian. He makes the rarely made historical connection between jargon and the terminology of therapy, but his condemnation of all ‘management speak’ is not nuanced enough to my mind:
…Evidence here, from CBS News, that it’s political buzzwords which have dominated this year:
An update from February 2020: the anti-jargon polemics continue, unabated and tediously repetitive. This is a little more detailed, more thought-provoking piece from Molly Young at Vulture:
..which prompted this riposte from Mark Morgioni at Slate: