Taming the Business Buzzword Beast

If Abraham Lincoln were reincarnated as a 21st-century businessman, one of his famous maxims might be rewritten to read something like this: "The good Lord must have loved buzzwords because he made so many of them."

Lincoln's legacy is safely entombed for the ages unsullied and unedited, but not so for contemporary language usage, particularly when subjected to the assault of the latest wave of business buzzwords, or overused catchphrases.

The tragedy of business buzzwords is that they were fresh and had meaning when they were first coined. When terms like "cutting-edge," "total quality management" and "quantum leap" were first used, they brought fresh thinking to the language, outlined new concepts and suggested new paradigms.

But over time, they come unanchored and their usage becomes divorced from the original meaning, language expert Bryan Garner told BusinessNewsDaily. Garner is in a position to know. One of our foremost arbiters of usage, he is the author of "A Dictionary of Modern American Usage" (Oxford, 2009), a definitive guide to the use and misuse of the American language that is now in its third edition.

Garner is not shy about coming down on the side of correctness and damning the inferior, particularly when it comes to jargon and vogue words and expressions.

"As they become clichés, they lose their power and legitimacy," Garner said.

It's similar to what happens to money when monetary policy is flawed and the economic principle of Gresham's law kicks in— bad money drives out the good. So it goes with language as well.

In some respects, buzzwords are the junk food of language. We're drawn to them like moths to flame even though they are devoid of nutrition. They are often irresistible to users across the corporate spectrum from c-suite to cubicle. Part of it, said Garner, is the notion of being a member of a fraternity.

"It's like being one of the cool kids," he said.

Garner, though, understands that language and usage evolve and change. One of the new features in the third edition of his book is the Language-Change Index, which marks the progression of words and phrases from rejected and widely shunned to fully accepted.  And he has been known to let some expressions catch a break and be welcomed into the linguistic fold.

Mark Stevens, head of the MSCO marketing agency and author of "Your Company Sucks" (BenBella Books, 2011) and many more, makes Garner look positively avuncular in his tolerance of buzzwords. Stevens reserves special condemnation for "thinking outside the box."

He goes out of his way with pit-bull pugnacity to avoid buzzwords.

"I don't find them to be irresistible," he told BusinessNewsDaily. "I find them to be depressing. I think they are shortcuts to not thinking things through on your own. Let's take one of the biggest buzzwords of all times—'thinking outside the box.'"

That expression means you're already inside the box, he said. When you're inside of the box, he said, you can't get outside of the box.

"Once we start in the box, we're usually stuck there," Stevens said. "I'm sure the first time someone said, 'Let's think outside the box,' that was cool. But then it became blah, blah, blah."

What is it that makes not thinking so attractive?

"It's easier," he said. "Take the 80/20 rule. The 80/20 rule says that it's OK by divine intervention that 20 percent of your people account for 80 percent of your sales. And that's OK, because the 80/20 rule was part of the Ten Commandments. So 80 percent of our sales people suck, but that's the way it is because it's ordained. That's much easier than going out and changing the sales force and making them more effective."

Buzzwords can also lead you down the primrose path to compromise, Stevens said. Consensus is a case in point.

"Consensus around any issue is accepted as the holy grail," he said. "I believe it's nonsense. Great managers never strive for consensus. Seeking consensus means you're seeking a committee, which is what is behind the word. It's a committee, it's apolitburo."

Stevens suggests you steer clear of buzzwords unless it's one you invented and it's never been heard before. Nodding heads, he said, are a giveaway that you're using buzzwords.

"I know what they are," Stevens said. "You know what they are. Don't use them. You're just dumbing yourself down. What's the word buzzword mean? Buzzword means something you get a buzz out of. Is anybody getting a buzz out of what I'm saying? Or are they just going to get a yawn? If it's a buzz, use it. If it's a yawn, don't."

Reach BusinessNewsDaily senior writer Ned Smith at nsmith@techmedianetwork.com. Follow him on Twitter @nedbsmith.

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