I have a problem with buzzwords.
Can you name the last five buzzwords you heard? What about the last ten? Don’t worry about the order, just try to come up with something recent, some term you’ve run across, that really didn’t seem to stand for anything, but was intended as a broad generalization of a concept, and applied to a very simple, elemental ideal.
I’ll help. Here are some: Rights. Reform. Liberty. Justice. Freedom.
We’re used to seeing ideas like blogging, the social web, networking, entrepreneurship come up in the discussion of overarching, nebulously defined ideals, but the trouble is that so much of our society is predicated on these vague shorthand terms. I wonder sometimes if buzzwords in general are part of the problem, or not. How are we supposed to communicate in general if we can’t communicate these ideals in the specific?
The whole point of language, especially codification and good lexicography, is to make sure that communication is reliable, understandable and universal. Dialects and slang aside, raw core ideals should be easy to transmit in short bursts, to make conversation breathable. But throwing in buzz, or any kind of highly emotional lingo, ruins a part of this because, like it or not, no two people speak the same language. As much as we convince ourselves we all speak (for example) proper English, it’s a crock.
I’ve got a better vocabulary than a lot of people I know. This can come in handy, as I spend a decent amount of my time being a translator. Working in the core has drawbacks – immigration rates and cheap housing mean that the down town area, at least of Winnipeg, is saturated by people who speak English – this supposedly common language – to varying levels of success. Having strong command of the language lets me do my job effectively whether the people I’m speaking to own the technical command or not. But every so often, I run into trouble translating, and it’s usually because of the wide adoption of buzzwords.
We don’t all use the same ones.
Perfect example: patch cords. What does that mean, exactly? You wouldn’t believe the number of times in a month someone asks me for a patch cord, then gets incensed when I ask what kind they mean. You know, a patch cord! For hooking up a TV! This isn’t a buzzword for me. I work with a lot of kinds of cords: coaxial cable, analog RCA, S-Video, component video, DVI, HDMI – and that’s just the video cables that fall under this category. If you want audio, there’s also RCA, but then we get into things like quarter inch mono and stereo, eighth inch for the same, digital coaxial, optical cable. See where this is going? In one eight foot section of my shop, we’ve got easily twenty different kinds of cords that all fall under the broad description of “patch cord.” Don’t yell at me because you can’t bring yourself to specify.
Don’t yell at the system because it can’t either.
If we get so confused over one term relating to two dozen kinds of AV cabling, imagine what someone from outside our sphere thinks when they start hearing terms like health care reform, universal justice or rights and freedoms. Often, these words either mean nothing at all, or can mean so many different things that even with context the lack of specificity is damaging to communication. It gets worse when we bring up the broad ideals, but don’t concieve for ourselves what possible specifics we might mean.
Our culture – the entire western hemisphere, everywhere from western Europe to Canada, the USA – produces buzzwords at an alarming rate!
I’m still waiting for someone to explain the job qualifications of a Director of Community. Or a Social Networks Manager. On the surface, it seems like such a simple ideal – but like any good category, it has to leave room for details that haven’t been conceived of when the buzzword is created. Which is part of the problem, I suppose. Specificity is great, but exact language requires a lot more time than most people have these days. It’s worrisome that our language has begun to so accurately accommodate the velocity of our society.
As someone wise is reported to have said, there is more to life than increasing its pace.
I’d encourage you to be more careful of why you use buzz along with your words. The shotgun approach to conversation doesn’t serve everyone as well as it does stereotypical politicians. Some of us have to back up our statements with fact.
Photo by HVargas.