BAD BUZZWORDS!?

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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.

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Nearly all buzzwords follow the same trajectory:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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).
  4. 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:

https://www.inc.com/zoe-henry/worst-buzzwords-2017.html

…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:

https://theconversation.com/translated-the-baffling-world-of-business-jargon-52795

…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:

https://www.theguardian.com/news/2017/nov/23/from-inboxing-to-thought-showers-how-business-bullshit-took-over

…Evidence here, from CBS News, that it’s political buzzwords which have dominated this year:

https://www.cbsnews.com/news/2017-contenders-for-word-of-the-year/

 

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THE ART OF BUSINESS JARGON

 

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Business jargon – the buzzwords, catchphrasesclichés and mantras of corporate life – manages to be perennially fascinating and endlessly irritating. Many of the better-known expressions have an air of novelty despite being in existence for many years, and survey after survey lists the same serial offenders as the triggers of office rage, headdesking and facepalming. The very latest take on this subject, visualising the metaphors we take for granted, is provided here, courtesy of Citrix ShareFile‘s illustrator David Doran, writer Kevin Hill and by kind permission of Search Laboratory’s Senior Media Specialist Jennie Lindehoff…

 

https://www.sharefile.com/blog/illustrated-business-jargon-by-david-doran/

 

BIZWORDS AND BUZZWORDS – 2

Back in the 70s and 80s ‘Val-speak’ or ‘Valley-speak’ used to refer to the modish slang of the well-to-do girls living in and around the San Fernando Valley in Southern California. Now it is more likely to denote the jargon circulating in Northern California’s Silicon Valley and beyond, the language of startups, digital entrepreneurism and tech innovation.  This language has now, characteristically, itself been commodified, packaged and sold by some of its users (see below). In the UK I have also been tracking the new language of technology, digital marketing and finance, and the terms thrown up by so-called hipster culture. Here are three examples…

 

FLAT WHITE

 

We all know that the finance sector is a major driver of UK growth, especially and disproportionally in London, but there’s another sector currently outperforming it, a sector that as yet doesn’t even have a name. Douglas McWilliams of the Centre for Economics and Business Research reported in 2016 that ‘the firms that are driving growth are all those businesses that you can’t easily describe…a mixture of IT, culture and marketing – you can’t define them by any Standard Industrial Code.’ The catchiest catch-all term for this phenomenon is the Flat White Economy, so called because the bicycle-riding hipsters supposed to be coordinating it favour Flat Whites, a coffee style imported from Australia, over Lattes or Cappuccinos. This motley collection of creatives, digital marketers and start-up entrepreneurs, many centred on East London’s Silicon Roundabout hub (based on Old Street and Shoreditch, the third-largest technology startup cluster in the world after San Francisco and New York City) is not uncontroversial, with some commentators doubting its capacity for longer-term growth, others seeing it as part of an overheated, overrated London-centric bubble.

 

ULTRA-URBAN

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The hipsters who have been steadily colonising our inner cities over the last decade haven’t actually given us much new language: too precious for street slang, too cool for corporate jargon, they tend merely to over-use existing terms like ‘craft’, ‘artisan’, ‘vintage’ and ‘pop-up’. Two recent exceptions, however, are the expressions UltraUrban (as it is often spelled) and Epicentral. Both are being used literally to denote central areas (ultra-urban is a technical term from planning and waste–management) like London’s Silicon Roundabout,  Berlin’s Kreuzburg or Budapest’s VII District, but also as adjectives with approving overtones of edginess (if that’s not a contradiction), authenticity and cultural dominance, applied to clothing, galleries, avant-garde music, etc. Should you, however, be allergic to ultra-urban first movers and all they represent, the Yelp website has used word maps to identify hipster hot zones to avoid in a range of cities across the US, Canada and Europe. In related news the Office for National Statistics (ONS) announced in 2017 that non-dairy milk such as soya, rice and oat milk now features on the list it uses to track prices. The list is used to calculate CPIH, the headline measure of inflation. Gin also returns to the product basket after a 13-year absence following a rise in consumption and a growth in the number of ‘artisan’ gin producers. The ONS also said that their list will now include bicycle helmets.

 

LASTING SPACES

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The dynamic – and often precarious and ephemeral – nature of the latest retail operations has been symbolised by the term pop-up. Temporary outlets spring up in unexpected places and disappear, while the urban landscape is potentially blighted by the high-speed turnover of small traders and obsolescent businesses. Now, however, the first signs of an opposing trend have yielded a very different expression. Lasting spaces may refer to newly established green zones, to boutiques, markets and drop-in welfare centres intended to stay put and reinforce permanent communities, also to novel interpretations of living accommodation such as container homes. The notion of lasting spaces forms part of what has been dubbed the local love or love local phenomenon, taking hold in the US, Australia and the UK. As well as simply showcasing local produce and promoting local enterprises, trendspotters see this as an important innovation in consumerism allied to the SoLoMo (‘social-local-mobile’) movement bringing together smartphones, social media and hyperlocal commerce.

 

Promoters and marketers of Silicon-valley language can be found at:

 http://www.siliconvalleyspeak.com/

And here is one of the very few articles to highlight the language of innovation from a UK perspective:

http://www.bbc.com/capital/story/20170313-the-secret-language-you-speak-without-realising-it?ocid=twcptl

HOW MANY IS A BANKER’S DOZEN?

Banker’s dozen

A baker’s dozen traditionally includes one extra bun

A ‘baker’s dozen’ is where a baker slips a gratis 13th bun into a customer’s order. (Also known as a long dozen, the phrase dates from 1599, but may refer to a much older practice of adding something to a batch to seem generous.) The banker’s dozen, by contrast, is much more recent. It can mean literally one less than the full dozen, ie 11 items instead of the expected 12: sometimes it just means a short measure of any kind.

More technically, the phrase may refer to a method of lending where interest or penalties are deducted before the loan is transferred, so the debtor borrows ten pounds but receives only nine. This topical reference to financiers’ avarice is probably the inspiration for a trader’s dozen which, in City of London slang, means a dozen drinks in quick succession on a Friday lunchtime (per person, that is), typically charged covertly to a client or employer.

Send buzzwords, jargon and new and exotic usages to  tony.thorne@kcl.ac.uk.

CRISIS-TALK

I’m now collecting examples of exotic, disturbing or infuriating post-Brexit language (and welcome contributions from readers, which will be gratefully acknowledged). Back in 2010 I reviewed the new terms generated by the recession that then afflicted us.

 

THE YEAR IN JARGON

 

We’re all familiar by now with quantitative easing, and bemused by all those recessionistas practising chiconomics…but the bizwords kept on coming…

Tony Thorne looks back at the terminology born of the downturn/meltdown

 

While things were going well it was commonplace to refer complacently to the hidden hand that Adam Smith claimed was quietly regulating the mechanisms of capitalism. Nowadays that concept seems as inappropriate as combining the two words ‘city’ and ‘gent’: the current sense of crisis requires a new set of metaphors and some picturesque contenders are duly emerging. Foremost among them is creative destruction, a phrase first popularised by Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter in 1942. A much more radical version of the familiar shakeout, this has come to refer to the demolition of monopolies and economic structures by revolutionary innovation – including ‘revolutionary’ financial instruments and their resultant collateral/fallout.

Another term that has come into its own is boiling frog syndrome, apparently coined by one Leopold Stomm (described as a ‘political and economic theorist, amateur naturalist, and sadist’ but possibly fictional). This can be illustrated by the image of ‘frog’ X (insert the name of any major car manufacturer) ‘sitting in shallow water and denying that the temperature is rising’ – right up to the moment when it boils to death.

And what of the victims of economic turmoil, those senior professionals who have been Pluto’d (demoted, like the planet), lateralled (i.e kicked sideways; they are said to be suffering from adjacency), checked out (serving notice) or simply exited (which has replaced all those euphemisms formerly used in HR circles); what of the recently retired who have become the returned – in other words have been forced back into work? One humbling-but-uplifting option may be to take one of the thousands of green-collar jobs that the US and UK governments have promised to create. Successor to the white, blue and pink-collar (the last denoting supposedly ‘feminine’ jobs like beautician –sorry, cosmetologist – care assistant or florist), green-collar describes manual jobs in the ecological economy, usually involving cleaning up pollution or installing energy-saving devices. A quite different sort of comfort might be provided by going on a Ponzi crawl. Highlighted recently by the Madoff débâcle, the latest Ponzi scheme (named after an early 20th-century pyramid scamster of Italian origin) is a serial bar crawl in which the last to join has to treat all his/her fellow drinkers – and gets exactly nothing in return.

In trying to keep track of this year’s blizzard of buzzwords I’ve been helped out by readers of my previous offerings. From the US Nick Harrison writes to signal a new usage: the noun shutter has suddenly become a verb, signifying both closing down and boarding up, as in ‘Madam K’s is soon to shutter’, or ‘Granco has shuttered its operations’. He spotted four examples within four days from the Seattle Times, ‘…sole remaining daily paper in this town since the 150 year-old Post Intelligencer itself shuttered a month or so ago.’ Another novel Americanism yet to cross the oceans is shovel-ready, referring to a major project that is all set to go but awaiting public funding which may not now materialize.

In times of turmoil an upsurge in acronyms and abbreviations is only to be expected, and examples noted by correspondents include GFC (the Australian government’s own shorthand for global financial crisis) and CC which can stand for credit-crunch or current climate. Irish informant Ros Waverley has picked up on the fact that R.I.F, the euphemistic reduction in force(s) (aka downsizing) from a year or so ago, has first become an acronym pronounced ‘riff’, and more recently a verb, as in ‘we’re riffing’/’we’ve been riffed.’

Several readers were amused when Lord Mandelson testily insisted that his £2.5bn rescue package for the UK car industry was not a bailout (Merriam-Webster’s word of the year for 2008), but a greening initiative. Others were tickled by the portentous language governments have come up with to boost their anti-recessionary credentials: a little too late perhaps Australia has embraced countercyclicality, which simply means anticipating periodic economic downturns, while Britain has been promoting flexibilism; adapting your working practices to cope with unexpected crises.

I can’t help chuckling cynically at the latest catchphrases circulating among the cheerfully desperate – or desperately cheerful – flat is the new up is one such, while I heard someone the other day assert in all seriousness that we’ve got to take the HAV (high-altitude view) and look beyond the beyond. Thankfully professional trendspotters also remain resolutely upbeat, promoting something they call innovation jubilation, celebrating nimbleness (marketing’s successor to agility) and announcing the imminent appearance of the unlikely Generation G (for generous).

 

 

BIZWORDS AND BUZZWORDS

 

The business world is responsible for – or guilty of – generating a constant stream of new terminology, buzzwords and jargon. I have been tracking such exoticisms for more than a decade in my Bizword column in British Airways Business Life magazine…

FOLLOWERSHIP

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After decades of analysing the qualities associated with the various styles of leadership, management theory has given us a new buzzword-by-analogy. Originating in 1988 and trending in business schools 20 years later, the term is entering everyday corporate jargon. The concept of followership, we are told, is not just looking at hierarchy relationships from a new angle but reinterpreting group dynamics so that subordinates can learn how best to follow while leaders learn exactly how to cultivate them. There is, of course, a danger in focusing on following rather than leading: the role sounds less heroic or proactive. But newly identified types of empowered follower not only practise the key skills of taking or ignoring instruction, identifying expectations and goals, ego-management and performing as team players, but can exert coercive push, manipulating their bosses and enabling the wider organisation to excel.

 

LEAD-MAGNET

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Digital marketing is a nonstop – and seemingly unstoppable – generator of new terminology, so agencies must help novices to keep up by posting glossaries of the latest buzzwords. Turning prospects into leads into actual customers involves, in the jargon, directing traffic to your landing page (ideally frictionless) or welcome gate, which is likely to feature a lead-magnet, aka opt-in bribe, a benefit such as a free consultation, free trial, discount offer, or a content-upgrade such as a toolkit or guide to induce the visitor to give you their contact details. That is a conversion, the start of a relationship with the site visitor who should then go on to register with you, follow you on social media and/or purchase something. (Measure success by your conversion rate, failure by your bounce-rate). The series of steps you use to draw in the customer, from ads via webpages through interactions all the way to payment is known as the funnel.

 

You can find many more more Bizwords at

 

http://businesslife.ba.com/TagSearch.html?For=bizwords&PageNumber=1&SortBy=Relevance

 

Send your buzzwords, jargon and new and exotic usages to

tony.thorne@kcl.ac.uk

 

LOVE IT? LOATHE IT? ENGAGE WITH IT!

Here’s an article, written for British and American professionals, that discusses the question of jargon…

Learning a new language can mean something different in today’s world of work.

 TONY THORNE

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 ‘We’ve got to monetise our visibility and maximise brand awareness’ says the boss. ‘I’ll get across it ASAP and keep an eye on collateral,’ responds the loyal subordinate with one eye on promotion and the other, if this is physically possible, on their back. Meanwhile the CEO announces that the organisation is ‘increasing its leveraging of intangibles and disruptive technologies to cope with sector turbulence’ and the shareholders nod sagely, whether they have understood what he’s talking about or not. English may be the international language but there’s another, more powerful and all-pervasive language at work here – a pressing reason for us to become bilingual or risk being left behind as the corporate and professional worlds evolve. One name for this code is BS. No – not that – it stands for Business-Speak, known also as office jargon, management-speak, buzzwords and biz-words, even sometimes in progressive circles as ‘digital discourse.’

Whatever you call it, biz-speak gets a bad press. Lucy Kellaway’s columns in the Financial Times have been parodying it for a decade, the UK’s Plain English Campaign regularly denounces it and not long ago MPs waded into the debate, chastising their civil servants for using phrases like ‘challenging growth trajectories’ and ‘driving up quality’. The Local Government Association even tried to ban a long list of terms including the awful ‘coterminous engagement’ and ‘predictors of beaconicity’, but also the – to my mind – quite innocent ‘synergy’, ‘benchmark’ and ‘initiative’. At the same time a raft of surveys by pollsters, HR agencies and academics have canvassed workers’ grievances and identified the use of jargon by bosses as the number one irritant. These studies revealed that junior executives and office workers in particular felt intimidated and excluded by managers’ obscure and pretentious language, suspecting, too, that this is often employed to conceal incompetence, or disguise unpalatable truths.

But despite all the surveys I’m not at all sure that we should automatically disapprove of jargon. When speakers strive to find new ways of describing genuinely new ideas, and when they play creatively with the possibilities of the language, they enrich our vocabulary, expand our capacity to express ourselves; to use a controversial word they empower us. As for technical terms – learn them! If your colleagues are referencing ‘portals’, ‘silos’, ‘inflows’, you ought to know what they are. New processes and new ways of consuming require new terminology and always have done. Key finance concepts like ‘sub-prime’ and ‘QE’ sound offputting, but try explaining them in different words in less than ten minutes; ‘onshoring’ is the neatest way of explaining that you have had to reverse your ‘outsourcing’ and ‘offshoring.’ BS can also inject a little drama and humour into the working day, so the slight recovery after a crash is better described as a ‘dead cat bounce’, taking a brave and unpopular decision is ‘shooting the puppy’, a pleasing upward curve is a ‘J-Lo’, the consultant you had to engage is a ‘hired gun’ or a ‘killer bee’.

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If you do decide to embrace this new lingo there are some crucial points to remember. Where BS is concerned the cardinal sins are:

  • Using too much of it in one conversation: unfamiliar terms are processed more slowly by the listener’s brain, so don’t overload them with ‘let’s move from a hub-and-spoke to a many-to-many peered distribution model.’
  • Using it to avoid straight-speaking: you won’t be popular if you substitute ‘transitioned’ for kicked out, ‘lateralled’ for moved sideways, ‘backfilled’ for replaced or, if you’re a government, ‘deficit levy’ for tax. And she’s a receptionist, by the way, not a ‘data hub facilitator.’
  • Not understanding what you are saying: a new way of saying all-inclusive is the skiing term ‘across the piste’, but some hapless professionals trying to impress are coming out with with ‘across the piece,’ one or two, excruciatingly, with ‘across the beast.’
  • Relying on clichés: some expressions have simply been done to death, with ‘going forward’, ‘reaching out’ and ‘thinking outside the box’ among the worst offenders.
  • Using it in completely the wrong setting: Don’t say ‘we’re thinking of co-curating our downtime and sourcing a leisure solution’, say ‘we’re planning to book a holiday’, and don’t ‘recalibrate the work-life balance’, just ‘relax.’

Critics need to realise that specialist language isn’t just about naming and describing, it’s about credibility, about bonding and belonging, about brevity and freshness, as much as about bamboozling or bluster. Knowing how to deploy (I like that word) this vocabulary marks you out as a member of a team or a community sharing common professional aims. OK, if I see ‘deliverables’ or ‘ownership’ or hear ‘alignment’ one more time, I’ll probably scream – but come on, let’s get buy-in from all stakeholders, embed a culture of innovation and maximise linguistic functionality.  Or to put it more brutally, if you don’t like the heat, stay out of the kitchen.

tony.thorne@kcl.ac.uk

Twitter: @tonythorne007

Here are some links to articles referring to business jargon:

 

 

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3377306/Survey-reveals-10-infuriating-business-phrases.html

http://www.languagemonitor.com/business-buzzwords/top-trending-business-buzzwords-for-global-english-in-2015/

http://www.fastcodesign.com/3054366/pentagram-unleashes-a-tirade-against-corporate-jargon-in-a-rap-video?partner=rss&utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+fastcodesign%2Ffeed+%28Co.Design%29

http://www.inc.com/kimberly-weisul/the-very-worst-business-jargon-of-2015.html

http://realbusiness.co.uk/article/26350-50-office-jargon-phrases-we-hate

http://www.theguardian.com/careers/careers-blog/worst-office-jargon-phrases-staff-love-hate-management-speak

http://etheses.bham.ac.uk/4706/