The Fault Lies Not In Our Buzzwords

But in ourselves, that we are buzzlings.

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Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

Molly Young wonders Why Do Corporations Speak the Way They Do? and kind of answers that question:

I like Anna Wiener’s term for this kind of talk: garbage language. It’s more descriptive than corporatespeak or buzzwords or jargon. Corporatespeak is dated; buzzword is autological, since it is arguably an example of what it describes; and jargon conflates stupid usages with specialist languages that are actually purposeful, like those of law or science or medicine. Wiener’s garbage language works because garbage is what we produce mindlessly in the course of our days and because it smells horrible and looks ugly and we don’t think about it except when we’re saying that it’s bad, as I am right now.

But the fault [with apologies to Shakeseare] lies not in our buzzwords, but in ourselves that we are buzzlings. Molly Young finds us responsible for caving into the deep, human need to find purpose and meaning through our narrative:

Our attraction to certain words surely reflects an inner yearning. Computer metaphors appeal to us because they imply futurism and hyperefficiency, while the language of self-empowerment hides a deeper anxiety about our relationship to work — a sense that what we’re doing may actually be trivial, that the reward of “free” snacks for cultural fealty is not an exchange that benefits us, that none of this was worth going into student debt for, and that we could be fired instantly for complaining on Slack about it. When we adopt words that connect us to a larger project — that simultaneously fold us into an institutional organism and insist on that institution’s worthiness — it is easier to pretend that our jobs are more interesting than they seem. Empowerment language is a self-marketing asset as much as anything else: a way of selling our jobs back to ourselves.

Yes, a great line: selling our jobs back to ourselves.

Olga Khazan has a similar take in The Most Corporate Buzzwords, that we adopt corporatese because we know, in our innermost thoughts, that work is filled with pretense and artifice:

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?


Given its ubiquity, we might expect workers to stop worrying and embrace the buzzword. What’s so wrong with a little thought-leading? The reason buzzwords are so annoying, [Gretchen] McCulloch [the author of Because Internet] says, is that language is inherently a reflection of the people who speak it and the circumstances in which it’s used. Terms such as circling back and touching base are inseparable from that one annoying work task you’re just trying to get someone to respond to. “If you find corporate buzzwords annoying, it’s probably because you find work annoying,” McCulloch says.

The fact that buzzwords are a joke even to many of the people who rely on them suggests that work, and its language, is a kind of pretense. And speaking the language of work reminds people that they’re pretending. [David] Graeber [the author of Bullshit Jobs] remembers the first time he and all his high-school friends shook hands, as kind of a gag. It became a recurring joke, as in “Oh, this is what adults do.” “I think people in these offices are permanently caught at that moment,” he says. We’re forever “closing the loop” on things because of a vague notion that this is what adults do.

Buzzwords and jargon are mental shortcuts as well as the emblem of our membership in a clan defined by shared clichés and a willingness to avoid deep thought and authentic discourse. Perhaps Theodor Adorno said it best:

Whoever is versed in the jargon does not have to say what he thinks, does not even have to think it properly. The jargon takes over this task.

Written by

Founder, Work Futures. Editor, GigaOm. My obsession is the ecology of work, and the anthropology of the future.

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