If there’s anything corporate America has a knack for, it’s inventing new, positive words that polish up old, negative ones. Silicon Valley has recast the chaotic-sounding “break things” and “disruption” as good things. An anxious cash grab is now a “monetization strategy,” and if you mess up and need to start over, just call it a “pivot” and press on. It’s the Uber for BS, you might say.
Cloying marketing-speak, of course, isn’t limited to the tech world. As a health reporter, much of my work involves wending my way through turgid academic studies, which are full of awkward turns of phrase such as salience and overweight (used as a noun, as in “the prevalence of overweight”). Even more tedious is reading some of the reports put out by nonprofit organizations, which always seem to want to arm “stakeholders” with tools for their “tool boxes.” I wish journalists were immune, given that we fancy ourselves to be plainspoken, but sadly common in our world is talk of “deep dives” and “impactful long form.” (Use of the word impactful is strongly discouraged by The Atlantic’s copy desk. As is the use of many other words.)
Not quite a cliché, not quite a term of art, a buzzword is a profound-seeming phrase devised by someone important to make something sound better than it is. Typically, the buzzword develops a shibboleth status in a given field—“we’re all about Big Data”—to the point where everyone is saying it and everyone feels as if they must say it. Meanwhile, with each repetition and slide deck, the term grows more hackneyed, and many of its speakers grow more nauseated at its mention. Does anyone actually say disrupt with a straight face anymore?