Sunday, April 12, 2015

Buzzword Backlash

Perhaps the only thing more tired than business buzzwords is the backlash against business buzzwords.

Maybe it's the circles I run in, but it seems that barely a week goes by without at least someone I know sharing an article about buzzwords that are overused, buzzwords I should stop using or buzzwords I should avoid immediately. The teasers all sound very knowing and very ominous. Typical are headlines like, "Most Annoying Buzzwords", "Buzzwords Gone Bad, and "Office Jargon: Six Tired Buzzwords to Avoid". Inevitably I'll click the link and find - much to my dismay - a bunch of words, phrases, and sayings that I either use myself, or find pretty much innocuous.

Heck, I'll go one step further. Most of the buzzwords people spend their time decrying are actually useful; useful in that they do what good language is supposed to do; they convey the desired meaning in a manner that's both economical and easy to understand. Further, they almost always strike me (cliched or not) as more interesting than any "plain language" alternative that's offered.

Take "wheelhouse" for example. In this article offering 30 Business Buzzwords You Should Stop Using, the author suggests that the term has been "around a long time and has become a bit of a cliche". Sure. Fine. It's a cliche. Still, if I'm sitting in a meeting and I have the choice between hearing someone say, "That's right in her wheelhouse" or "That's an assignment that matches her strengths. I expect she can handle it easily", I'll choose the former over the latter every day.

The same thing applies to the much-maligned term "scalable". Would you rather hear someone ask "Is it scalable?" or ask instead "Is it the case that this process can handle a growing amount of work in a capable manner?" Given those alternatives, I'm pretty OK with scalable.

Even when the brevity and clarity of buzzwords can be equaled, the results are often inferior. One article suggested dropping "ducks in a row" (as in, "We need to get our ducks in a row.") for "make a plan" (as in "We need to make a plan."). Unless one favors the embarrassingly prosaic, I don't see how this is an improvement. Is the expectation that the language we adopt be wholly literal? Are we to abandon metaphors, analogies, and figures of speech altogether?  Who on earth would wish for that?

Maybe that's what rankles me the most about buzzword backlash. When it comes to language I'm very much in the "language is a living and growing thing" camp. As such, I resist the admonitions of those who would prescribe when, how and what we should say. It's a form of cultural elitism that I've never been comfortable with.

If you want to teach people how to use language effectively, have at it. If you've got ideas for how to improve communication or increase its effectiveness, I'm all ears. If, on the other hand, you just want to tell people what words you think they should or shouldn't use, well, good luck with that. You'll never convince me it's a good idea, and frankly, you'd have better luck trying to boil the ocean.