by Bob Weinstein

Buzzwords: Why Doesn’t Anyone Speak Plain English Anymore?

Sep 24, 20077 mins
IT Leadership

Tech speak has infiltrated our business and personal lives—and it's not going away anytime soon.

Like it or not, buzzwords have invaded the business lexicon and have spilled over into our everyday conversations as well. They have become part of our business communication process. We don’t speak plain English anymore, but rather a strange patois that combines English, business speak and tech speak.

It’s no surprise that many senior managers and HR professionals worry that employees and job candidates have lost the ability to think for themselves and to find their own words to express themselves. Buzzwords are everywhere in every industry—and technology industries manufacture new ones every year.

Among them:

  • Greenwashing. Used to describe the actions of a company, government or other organization that advertises positive environmental practices while acting in the opposite way. Wikipedia says the term is generally used when significantly more money or time has been spent advertising being green rather than spending resources on environmentally sound practices.
  • Smishing. A mobile version of phishing, according to Wikipedia, it’s a scam that tries to trick users into handing over confidential details online and installs a Trojan horse.
  • Craplets (also crapware or bloatware). defines craplets as “those little unwanted 3rd-party programs that come installed on your Windows computer when you buy it.”

Last year Mobile Enterprise Weblog named “seamless mobility” as the hot new tech buzzterm. What does it mean? The weblog defined it as bridging the worlds of voice and data. “It converges fixed and wireless networks,” it added, “and it integrates between the enterprise and the carrier network.”

That’s only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. There are also dozens of buzzwords created in the corporate world that have infiltrated everyday conversations. A few favorites include:

  • At the end of the day; bottom line; disconnect. When you get right down to bottom-line thinking, at the end of the day, there seems to be a serious disconnect between marketing and sales.
  • Mission critical. We can’t lose sight of the fact that next quarter’s sales targets are mission critical.
  • Buy in. Let’s hope our regional managers buy in to our expansion strategy.
  • Grow; core. Our stockholders expect us to grow our core businesses by at least 25 percent this year.
  • Strategic partners; value proposition; same page. Thankfully our strategic partners are on the same page regarding our value proposition.
  • Proactive. We’re going to second-guess the problem by taking a proactive approach.
  • Value-added; no-brainer. We’re giving our customers a no-brainer, value-added incentive for buying the improved version of our software.

Then there are the buzzwords that are out of favor and soon to enter the buzzword hall of fame or be buried forever. A few that were popular in the mid- to late 1990s include:

  • Paradigm shift. This one has some history behind it. Coined in the 1960s, it referred to a shift of one way of thinking to another. During the rip-roaring dotcom years, it meant changing the way customers thought about buying products or services. The dotcom heavies thought it would be easy to get people to buy online instead of in traditional brick-and-mortar shops. They found out that it wasn’t so easy. The overflowing graveyard of defunct dotcom companies proves it.
  • Bandwidth. The technical definition is the amount of data a transmission can carry. Corporate spin masters changed it to mean the amount of time or resources a group or worker has available. “Hey, Jack, do we have the bandwidth to get that project finished by the end of the day?”
  • Eyeballs. Thankfully, this one is on a respirator and soon to be permanently interred. In early e-commerce days, it referred to the amount of traffic a website attracted.
  • Upskill. The solution for staying permanently employed. If you don’t want to be branded redundant, unnecessary, superfluous or just plain unemployable and be downsized, smartsized, terminated or axed, you’d best upskill yourself. In simple English, keep your skills current. “Upskill” is both a buzzword and doublespeak, according to William Lutz, professor of English at Rutgers University and author of The New Doublespeak: Why No One Knows What Anyone’s Saying Anymore. “Doublespeak is language that pretends to say something, and hides, evades or misleads,” says Lutz.

Lutz distinguishes between jargon and buzzwords. Every industry has its jargon. Buzzwords, however, are “vague and ambiguous,” he says.

But there is a simple explanation for why buzzwords are ambiguous, according to Alan Freedman, founder of The Computer Language Company in Point Pleasant, Pa. His Computer Desktop Encyclopedia, launched in 1980 and published through 2001, was the longest-published computer dictionary. “Buzzwords are the result of bad writing,” he explains. “Technical companies don’t know how to explain difficult technical concepts simply, so they coin buzzwords thinking they’d be easily understood. But all they do is confuse people. It is more difficult to explain technical concepts in the English language than it is to be a programmer. That’s why buzzwords, hype and confusion in the technical field reign.”

Freedman cites the word “solutions” as a great example of a buzzword that has infected our language. “Solution,” as a buzzword, is only seven years old, and was defined in Freedman’s 2000 computer encyclopedia. But once introduced, it “rapidly infected our language,” he says. In fact, he ranks it as the IT marketing buzzword of the 21st century.

“Nobody makes products or services anymore; everybody just offers solutions to your problems,” says Freedman. “I read webpages all the time, and half the time, I have to read several pages to figure out what they do.”

It doesn’t end there. The buzzword “solution” has morphed into the “solutions architect” (“person very capable of problem solving”) and the “solutions provider” (an “organization that provides a mix of consulting services, custom programming and hardware to solve a customer’s information problem”).

Another powerhouse buzzword that’s been huge for several years is “enterprise.” Simply, “an enterprise is the entire organization, plus subsidiaries,” Freedman explains. It could be a company of any size or a government agency. But it does not “refer to the corner candy store,” he adds, “although it could certainly be someone’s enterprise.” A few terms that lead off with “enterprise” are “application integration,” “data,” “developer,” “environment,” “framework” and “information portal.”

Then there’s “leading,” a word that has found itself in almost every annual report and PR release. Isn’t it odd indeed that every company you read about is the leading player in its industry? Right next to “leading” is its blood relative, “leading edge.” Every technology company worth its bytes is on the leading edge. Now there’s another coincidence.

Both “leading” and “leading edge” have interesting histories, according to Freedman. Leading’s roots lie in typography rather than technology. Pronounced “ledding,” it refers to the vertical spacing between the lines of type. And leading edge’s technical roots can be traced to punch cards (the edge of a punch card), digital electronics (a pulse as it changes from a 0 to a 1) and programming (a loop that tests a condition before the loop is entered).

Will buzzwords ever go away? Sorry, they’re here to stay. As long as companies keep turning out new technology, they are going to keep churning out buzzwords. Other than journalists and contrarian perfectionists like Lutz and Freedman, few people seem bothered by them. The proof is in the pudding, as they say. Millions of people continue to buy companies’ solutions—even believing that each one is the leading player in its respective niche.