A General Theory of Buzzwords: Synergistic Meta-Linguistic Paradigm Shifts

By Brahm Capoor
2017, Vol. 9 No. 02 | pg. 2/2 |

Firstly, they allow managers to claim authority by signalling their relative power, especially given that the interpretive flexibility of buzzwords makes it difficult to argue against the manager. Secondly, they allow managers to facilitate action by reframing goals productively. As Cluley eloquently puts it, while “buzzwords can be used as neon signs to draw attention to their own authority but […] they also provide a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down.” Finally, buzzwords allow managers to displace responsibility for hard decisions by providing a mechanism to abstract away from what those decisions might involve. These effects may seem disingenuously achieved, but the fact remains that they allow management to be more productive.

Therefore, we see that as a buzzword becomes more prevalent, and that as the trends of appealing to the current generation, increases in interpretive flexibility and of removing older terms continue, buzzwords can make discourse more productive. All these trends, however, cannot continue in perpetuity. A generation can only identify with a phrase for so long, a phrase can only have so few interpretations and only so many competing words can be forgotten. As these trends continue, the effect they have on the amount the word is used continues to diminish. At some point, the word proliferates no more: it has saturated the discourse. This saturation is characterized by widespread misuse of the phrase. Journalist Nick Douglas recounts a developer telling him “Monetizing our apps is all about the long tail — transitioning from viewers to users.” (Douglas, 2007), despite the fact that the long tail has nothing to do with views or users. This misuse is the next stage of the life of a buzzword, and is the natural progression of its growth.

More often, however, misuse of buzzwords is not an explicit mix up of meaning and intent, but rather a means to create apolitical and unproductive dialogue. Cornwell & Brock (2005) argue that in the sphere of development policy, the use of buzzwords allows politicians to institute the pretense of meaningful dialogue without the burden of having to take concrete action. Dan Hansén, in “Effects of Buzzwords on Experiential Learning: The Swedish Case of ‘Shared Situation Awareness”(2009) describes the effect of buzzwords in the field of policy making through a case study of the phrase ‘shared situational analysis’ (SSA). SSA – which is widely discussed in such spheres - refers to the extent to which various members of a crisis possess the same relevant information about the situation. Policy makers in Sweden, Hansén argues, jump upon the SSA wagon with gusto and without due consideration, thereby obscuring other mechanisms for crisis management.

It seems apparent, therefore, that we can further refine our model by demarcating the growth of buzzwords with the productivity of their contribution to discourse. They may initially support and facilitate discourse, but at the point of saturation, they detract from it instead. This model for the growth of a buzzword allows for the perspectives brought forth by Vincent & Culey as well as Cornwell, Brock & Hansén by demonstrating that the accusations they levy towards buzzwords are both valid at different times. The model also empirically supports the public’s impression of buzzwords: they grow while they are still new and exciting, but eventually reach the stage where no one knows what they mean any more.

How a Buzzword Dies

A buzzword does not die quietly. Rather, it endures backlash and parody, falling precipitously into ignominy until it is finally consigned to a forgotten nonexistence. Contextually speaking, this decline begins at the point of saturation – when a buzzword is subject to prevalent misuse. As people begin to notice this, they grow disillusioned by the word and its force and turn on it.

In “You call that innovation?” (2012), Wall Street Journalist Leslie Kwoh discusses how the word “innovation” – an almost stereotypical buzzword – and its multiple meanings. She discusses how some companies see “innovation” as meaning ‘inventing a product that has never existed’, while others see it as ‘turning an overlooked commodity” into a consumer product, others as “extending a product’s scope and application,” while others still see an innovation simply as a “very good product.” The article takes a fairly disparaging tone towards the word, indicating that its utter and profound lack of meaning gives it less utility. She quotes other figures saying the same: consultant Scott Berkun advises his corporate clients ‘to ban the word at their companies’ and CEO Bill Hickey of Sealed Air corp – the company behind bubble wrap – is considering ‘dropping the word in company materials’. This institutional backlash signals the start of the death of a buzzword. It is easy to imagine how, if such a notion originates in a publication like the Wall Street Journal, the buzzword’s notoriety spreads quickly. Given that this anti-buzzword stigma originates from a source of such high stature, people are only too ready to abandon it.

The disappearance of these buzzwords from the public lexicon leaves a vacuum in their place, and the question that remains is what fills this vacuum. Here, we see two main forces at play. Firstly, the growth of new terms and buzzwords – as discussed previously – allows for participants to transition from the weak buzzword to the stronger, more exciting phrase. The crucial implication here is that buzzwords are an inherently circular phenomenon, and that one’s fall begets another’s rise. Secondly, and more interestingly, they are reframed. Andrea Cornwall, in “Buzzwords and fuzzwords: Deconstructing development discourse.,” discusses how buzzwords can be reframed. The crux of her argument is that by altering the context in which we use them, we give “tired buzzwords a new lease of life.” (p. 482). As an example she explains how “Used in a chain of equivalence with good governance, accountability, results-based management, reform, and security, for example, words like democracy and empowerment come to mean something altogether different from their use in conjunction with citizenship, participation, solidarity, rights, and social justice.” By reframing these words in such a manner, the ‘buzzword’ element of the word dies but it remains a part of dialogue.


It is fascinating that buzzwords – seemingly an unpredictable and granular social phenomenon – can be modelled by such a relatively simple theory. We see that buzzwords are born not to be buzzwords, but to encapsulate new ideas succinctly. They are birthed by well-known sources who engage in serious treatments of the phrase. As they proliferate, they engage in competition with pre-established words and win and start becoming more flexible, interpretively speaking. In doing so, they facilitate discourse becoming more productive. At some point, this productive increase plateaus and buzzwords saturate the discourse. At this point, people start to turn against the word and it dies a loud and noticeable death.

The phrase “third culture kid” is an anthropological term used to describe a child who has spent most of their developmental years outside of their parents’ culture. As an Indian expatriate growing up in Singapore and attending an international school, I was constantly told in presentations in assembly and in conversations with teachers that I was a third culture kid. I was told that this meant I had unique language skills, that I had a unique perspective and that I would be well suited to adapting to various different environments. As I grew up, all of this started coming true, and I relished my status as a third culture kid. As I became comfortable with my own cultural identity, and less interested in discovering more about it, my encounters with the phrase increased in frequency. Educational theorists on the other side of the world would come up with increasingly contrived theories about how my being a third culture kid affected my life and less of these theories started coming true. At times, they seemed like mere speculation, easily rebutted merely by living my life. At some point, it went from being a badge of honor to merely provoking a roll of my eyes.

‘Third culture kid” became my own buzzword. Where once was a word that connoted so much about me was now a catchall for my identity, and I started to resent it. I argued against it, and made a point not to describe myself as such. The phrase no longer has anything to do with my life and is only a forgotten artifact of my past.

In my case, I am clear that buzzwords negatively impacted the discourse about people in my cultural context. In other cases, the debate is not quite as clear. The theory of buzzwords constructed in this paper allows us to clarify the debate a little. The crux of the debate centers around whether buzzwords invigorate discourse or desaturate it. The model of buzzwords provided here renders that debate moot as it establishes that both of these sides have merit at different stages of the life of a buzzword. As a buzzword grows, it helps discourse, and once it has peaked, it starts slowing it.

The debate is also skewed by the perspectives of its participants. A New York Times journalist, virulently spewing vitriol against buzzwords, is naturally biased towards his craft. A developmental policy expert can view the debate most clearly from the lens of her field. In order to arrive at a more holistic view, one must take a step back. This paper was necessarily cross-disciplinary. Only by abstracting away a model of buzzwords from the plethora of disciplines that I discussed could I arrive at a more complete model. That said, the model is limited in scope by the dearth of literature about buzzwords in conjunction with the lack of nuance. While it makes a suitable starting point, it can be refined by other case studies and disciplinary perspectives on buzzwords and convoluting the theory.

Rare is the social phenomenon that sparks as much controversy as buzzwords do. Their influence extends across borders and oceans and their effect on our psyche remains undiluted. With that cultural power comes an inordinate level of discussion. In the absence of a model of buzzwords on which to base this conversation, the once-exciting and productive debate became empty: people shouting words at each other across a void of misunderstanding. As it continued and so-called experts attempted to proselytize each other, the debate became an annoyance as slowly, they realized no one knew what they were talking about. The model of buzzwords constructed in this paper attempts to change that. Without it, the debate about buzzwords itself – in a spectacular twist of irony – is a buzzword.


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