Buzz words, keywords, and puzzling neologisms in English

 

The January-February 2011 newsletter of the American Copy Editors Society (ACES) includes a report by Matthew Crowley on the ten most memorable words of 2010―that is to say the ten most notable words of the year in American discourse, politics and social life. Politics dominates this year’s list, which includes “austerity” (applicable to everything), “shellacking” (what happened to the Democratic Party), and “refudiate” (a term inadvertently invented by former Governor of Alaska Sarah Palin). British lists of the year’s most bandied-about words naturally reflect British discourse, politics and social life, although they seem to indicate that the British are more aware of American politics than Americans are of British politics. “QE2” (the second round of the US Federal Reserve’s quantitative easing policy) and “austerity” appear on both the list compiled by ACES and another offered by the Guardian, austerity defined by the latter as “sanctimonious meanness”. While it didn’t spare the feelings of British politicians, the Guardian dished it out to their American counterparts as well, defining “Obama” as a  “unit of time defined by the period that elapses between first experiencing the hope that things will change and then realising that they won’t.” Obama isn’t the only politician to appear as a unit of measurement on the Guardian’s list.  A Miliband is described as being  a “unit of measurement describing the quantity of affection between brothers competing for the same job.” At least one non-politician also made the Guardian‘s list: an “Assange” is defined as “the act of dressing self-indulgence up as piety.”

“Memorable” tends to be a synonym for “overused” and a polite term for “beaten to death”.  We live in a world torn between a desire for originality and recognition, of trendsetters and followers.  As far as Crowley’s list goes, I’m certain that austerity was generally understood, shellacking mystified people under fifty, and refudiate had many Republicans groaning and even more Democrats rolling in the aisles.

When I read a list of the top ten most confusing words related to high technology recently published by The Global Language Monitor (GLM) I let out a long sigh of relief―I wasn’t the only person in the world who didn’t have the faintest idea what a “God Particle” is. Other tech terms that made the GLM list included HTTP, SOA (it’s service-oriented architecture), and megapixel. By the way, GLM coincided with the Guardian in declaring  Twitter and tweet respectively as notable words in 2010.

The online version of the Macmillan Dictionary is a  digital Mecca for those trying to keep up with buzz words that have achieved a certain level of circulation and acceptance. It lists words by the year of their invention or sudden surge of popularity, defines them, and gives contextual examples of their use. It even classifies them as countable or uncountable and weighs in on whether they should be hyphenated or not (a nice feature for copy writers and editors). Entries for 2010 (which judging by the punctuation were prepared by a British editor) include:

eco-bling also ecobling

noun [uncountable]

ecological gadgets and technology which do not save or produce very much energy relative to their cost

‘British homes and offices are being plastered with useless eco-bling which makes little difference to the environment, a leading engineer has claimed.’

Daily Mail 20th January 2010

hacktivist

noun [countable]

a person who changes or manipulates information on the Internet in order to convey a political message. ‘The ISC said “Islamist terrorists” had learned how to deface websites and launch denial of service attacks, a routine method hacktivists, hackers and criminals use to prevent people’s websites from working for short periods.’

THINQ.co.uk 18th March 2010

robocall also robo-call

noun [countable]

an automated telephone call which plays a recorded message

robocall also robo-call

verb [transitive]

‘As of September 1, 2009, prerecorded commercial telemarketing calls to consumers – commonly known as robocalls – were prohibited, unless the telemarketer has obtained permission in writing from consumers who want to receive such calls …’

Tucson Citizen 5th March 2010

tweetup also tweet-up

noun [countable]

a meeting of two or more people who know each other through the Twitter short messaging service

‘To celebrate this little milestone, we’re organizing a D.C. tweetup next week on Thursday, Dec. 10th, 2009. Come out and hang with us and your fellow D.C. tweeps …’

Washington City Paper 3rd December 2009

Keywords serve as a counterpoint to all this originality: If you’re looking for return on your verbal investment, you’ve got to embed widely recognized and accepted search terms liberally throughout whatever you say and write, whether you are a research scientist or a blogger interested in spreading the news about your favorite sports team or recipe.

The Website of the Faculty of Health Sciences Research, University of Adelaide, Australia, offers the following advice to their students and faculty members:

The following Keywords have been provided by researchers across the Faculty of Health Sciences and is (sic) updated on a continuous basis.  It is by no means a comprehensive list but its intention is to put you (whether a student seeking a potential supervisor or a researcher looking for a fellow collaborator) in direct contact with someone who shares similar research interests!

Embedding keywords may temporarily boost search engine rankings, but this practice inevitably fosters the repeated use of a predictable vocabulary that starts out a bit bombastic and quickly loses its cachet, and even its intended purpose.

The LinkedIn analytics department carried out a study of the buzz words which professionals used most frequently in their profiles to describe themselves and their accomplishments in 2010. The most frequently used nouns and adjectives in US profiles were:

  1. Extensive experience
  2. Innovative
  3. Motivated
  4. Results-oriented
  5. Dynamic
  6. Proven track record
  7. Team player
  8. Fast-paced
  9. Problem solver
  10. Entrepreneurial

In a wider analysis of LinkedIn profiles maintained by users in 11 countries in 2010, the four most frequently used buzz words were:

 

1.     Extensive Experience – USA, Canada, Australia
2.     DynamicBrazil, India, Spain
3.     Motivated – UK
4.     InnovativeFrance, Germany, Italy, Netherlands

 

I am not at all surprised that “dynamic” was a popular choice among Spanish users. The documents I handle daily in Spain are peppered with every possible variation of the word. It seems that not only is everyone and everything either marvelously dynamic or not dynamic enough; everything can be, and should be “dinamizado”.

 

Public relations and advertising professionals are aware (keywords aside) that flogging the same overused words to death is counterproductive in the end. Vickey Chowney posted an interesting article last August on Reputation on Line about the overuse of particular words in British press releases, in which she summarized the results of  Daryl Willcox’s analysis of over 1,269 press releases distributed in the UK over a sixty-day period in 2010. It was Chowney’s opinion that the prominence of words and phrases such as “leading”, “solutions”, “innovative” and dynamic” in the texts analyzed showed “a lack of originality and how meaningless these types of words are becoming within pitches.”

 

Inc. magazine online has published a list of buzz words they hate, offset by another list of words which they still find interesting:

 

Business buzzwords they don’t want to hear and their reasons why

 

Actionable: A high-energy noun gone passive and flabby. Authenticity: Has become its own antonym through overuse. Best of breed: Try not thinking of Springer spaniels. Brain dump: Why treat creativity like construction waste? Co-opetition: Business doesn’t need a version of frenemy. Disintermediate: Has the same number of syllables as “cut out the middleman” with none of the clarity. Incentivize: First, it’s not a word. Second, what’s wrong with motivate? Mindshare: Our psyches are not Florida condos. Offline: Annoying in meetings (“Let’s take this offline”). We’re already offline! We’re surrounded by human beings! Outside the box: A cliché about not thinking in clichés. Proactive: Ugly corporate-ese, but without a decent synonym. Anyone? Repurpose: You are recycling. Just say so. Solution: A shame, what has happened to this word. Synergy: This bastard child of synthesis and energy is godfather to every enigmatically named tech company. Value-add: Devalues the concept of value. Talk shouldn’t be quite this cheap.

Business buzzwords they still liked (as of April 2009)

 

Angel: What better metaphor for the answer to an entrepreneur’s prayers? Bandwidth: The rare tech term that translates to human beings. Big Hairy Audacious Goal: Humor makes the phrase memorable; hyperbole makes it motivational. Core competency: Ruthlessly focuses the leader’s mind. Cube farm: Truthful but whimsical. Elevator pitch: A business drama in miniature. Empower: A little treacly, but also clear and authoritative. Frictionless: Great image for how processes should work. Just in time: Suggests not just efficiency but salvation. Killer app: Succinct, clear, intimidating. Knowledge worker: Judges employees not by the color of their collars but by the content of their brains. Learning organization: Celebrates both continuous improvement and humility. Management by walking around: Humble yet vivid. Push the envelope: A cliché we like. Must be the Right Stuff association. Stickiness: Perfectly describes content that compels users to return.

Although every sector has its list of insider buzzwords, there are many crossovers. Actionable, repurpose, incentivize, synergy, value-added, and core competency are words that I see daily in both English and Spanish in documents related to business, politics and government, education and international development. A related article in marketingtoday.com summarizes the situation nicely:

Companies claiming to create “synergies” in an effort to develop a “value-added” “paradigm” that leads to new “solutions” may want to be strategic in another way: not going overboard with cliché phrases and industry jargon.

The article goes on to cite the results of a survey on business communication carried out by Accountemps which identified the most commonly overused words in the business world.  Senior executives of some of the largest companies in the United States who participated in the study were asked, “What is the most annoying or overused phrase or buzzword in the workplace today?”  Their responses included:

  • “At the end of the day”
  • Solution
  • “Thinking outside the box”
  • Synergy
  • “Paradigm”
  • “Metrics”
  • “Take it offline”
  • “Redeployed people”
  • “On the runway”
  • “Win-win”
  • Value-added
  • “Get on the same page”
  • “Customer centric”
  • “Generation X”
  • “Accountability management”
  • “Core competency”
  • “Alignment”
  • “Incremental”

Max Messmer, chairman of Accountemps and author of Job Hunting For Dummies® (John Wiley & Sons, Inc.) told   marketing.com “When these words are overused, they can lose their impact altogether.” He suggests searching for a clear alternative to blind dependence on buzz words: “For instance, instead of saying a project was a ‘win-win,’ explain why it was successful.”

For a translator or editor, plowing through a text full of buzz words is a lot like chewing on a wormy apple.  My own list of abused buzz words in Spanish includes transversal and transversalidad―which is the same as “mainstreaming de gender”―except when it isn’t. As early as 1995,  the Confederación Estatal de Movimientos de Renovación Pedagógica (a Spanish teachers organization) debated the value of the educational buzz words that they were being asked to conceptually implement in the classroom. “One of the primary problems springs from the linguistics employed,” a working group recorded in their report. “To speak of issues (temas), nuclei (axes), transversals* (transversales), equal opportunities (igualdad de oportunidades), consensus (consenso) gives rise to confusion and erroneous ideas.”  The group went on to pose the question “Does the introduction of this language work in our favor or against it?”

Writers working for any sector would be wise to ask themselves the same question when choosing terminology and descriptive words for any document they are preparing. Include key search words and sector   terminology wherever necessary, but keep your message fresh,  your language clear and your message to the point.

*Spanish speakers routinely form nouns out of adjectives, a habit that drives translators up a wall―transversal what?

♥ Since I wrote this post, an interesting article on fast food industry buzzwords written by Maureen Morrison has been published in the Advertising Age website. She reports that “wholesome”, “fresh”, natural”, and “premium” are replacing “low-fat”, “low-carb”, and “low-calorie” in fast food marketing campaigns. Morrison quotes Bonnie Riggs, restaurant-industry analyst at NPD Group, as saying, “Any time operators can position themselves as healthy, they should…but they have to be careful with the words they choose.”  She also quotes an article by Mark Bittman on the subject of McDonald’s inclusion of oatmeal in its menu which recently appeared in the New York Times style section. I remembered Bittman’s article precisely for the line that Morrison quotes; I had to read it twice to convince me that my eyes weren’t deceiving me. According to Bittman, a serving of McDonald’s oatmeal “contains more sugar than a Snickers bar and only 10 fewer calories than a McDonald’s cheeseburger or Egg McMuffin.” Wouldn’t it be easier to offer a really wholesome serving of oatmeal than to eternally search for  a marketing buzzword that will fly beneath the radar of industry regulators?

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