Beware of Buzzword Bingo

By Mark Nichol

Far back in the mists of Internet time (that would be the 1990s), a couple of wags at a computer company called Silicon Graphics created a subversive game that filled a need.

You’ve been there, perhaps: a company meeting at which executives or tech geeks unironically launch volleys of absurd marketing catchphrases or tech jargon. Well, these two fellows brainstormed some of the most egregious examples, created bingo-type cards with each box in the grid containing a term, and passed them around to select colleagues.

The idea was that whenever you heard a buzzword, you’d mark the pertinent box (surreptitiously, of course). As in bingo, you strove to be the first person to mark five boxes in a row. In this version, however, it was not advisable to leap to your feet and shout “Bingo!”

Instead, you would, without interfering with the official proceedings, either silently and stealthily notify your fellow participants or, if you were bold enough, ask a question of the presenter that somehow, in the context of the discussion, employed the use of the word bingo — and hope that neither you nor your competitors would lose it and bust a gut.

So, what does this have to do with DailyWritingTips.com? Don’t be that person who inspires a rousing game of buzzword bingo, or perpetuates the need for the game. If your employer or client requires you to use more than a couple of selections from the following word list in writing or speech, you have my permission to cry. (No honest person will deny having used at least one.) You also have permission to delete the term from your word-hoard and employ a handy little language called English.

Here are 24 terms — enough for one card (with a Free spot in the middle of a 5 x 5 grid):

2.0 (n.): the next generation
action item (n.): high-priority issue
bandwidth (n.): attention span, or ability to devote resources (such as brainpower)
benchmark (n.): standard
best practice (n.): a standard, proven strategy
bleeding edge (n.): an intensifier of bleeding edge; denotes innovation
circle (v.): check back with
deep dive (n.): an intensive exploration of detail
dialogue (n., v.): talk
going forward (v. and adv.): from now on (but with the implication that the period before going forward was marked by going backward — ass-backward, that is)
granularity (n.): fine detail
helicopter view (n.): overview
incentivize (or incent) (v.): to motivate
leverage (n., v.): power (n.), enhance or exploit (v.)
metrics (n.): measurements
mindshare (n.): expression of a thought
paradigm (n.): model
low-hanging fruit (n.): the simplest option
push(ing) the envelope (verb phrase): exert(ing) maximum effort
synergy (n.): compatibility
take (blank) offline (verb phrase): discuss something later
team player (n.): someone who is collegial and cooperative
think(ing) outside the box (verb phrase): to produce, or producing, unorthodox ideas
touch base (verb phrase): to meet for a status report
value-added (adj.): accompanied by an additional benefit (also used in noun form: value add)

For an inspired, brilliant skewering of the buzzword mentality, go to this column from the San Francisco Chronicle’s SFGate.com (scroll down past the usually droll columnist’s uncharacteristic rant to “In other news”).

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30 Responses to “Beware of Buzzword Bingo”

  • Stephen

    I think ‘bleeding edge’ should be the intensifier of ‘cutting edge’ rather than itself.

  • Steve Campbell

    You included one of my [least] favorites: “going forward.” It’s guaranteed to set my teeth on edge.

    You left off one that I love to hate. “Issue”: a problem. Think how much wimpier it would have been if the astronauts had radioed “Houston, we have an issue.”

    Finally, I question your including “best practice.” In the Internet engineering community there is a class of technical standards documents called BCPs or Best Current Practice documents. They represent the consensus of the community on the best way to do something. That seems reasonable to me.

  • Clayton Doak

    One of my favorite phrases is “…to vet”. And once I learned that its origin was to have soemthing checked like taking to the veterinarian, I always internally chuckle when I hear that one. Your checking the idea’s teeth or feet or scales….

    Proud owner of Great Danes and former owner of horses…

  • b2j2

    One card of a ten card set?

  • Sally

    These are two of the buzz-word phrases that make me crazy – I hear them too frequently on television, radio and from PROFESSIONAL speakers!

    ‘at the end of the day’

    ‘step up to the plate’

  • Sally

    And here’s another buzz word: organic/organically

    “We’re going to make some organic changes from within.”
    “Going forward organically…”

    What the heck does THAT mean?? Is the company adding organically produced food to the cafeteria menu? I don’t think so…at least not in the context I’ve heard it used.

  • Stephen

    Steve> I think that usage of the term ‘best practice’ is reasonable, but the usage that Mark has highlighted (when ‘best practice’ is used to refer to any standard practice) is wrong.

    A lot of the other terms highlighted do have technical meanings in specific contexts. For example, a metric is a mathematical function that defines a distance on a set. Using the term in other contexts, particularly when you really just mean ‘measurement’, is also wrong.

    ‘Bandwidth’, ‘benchmark’, ‘dialogue’, ‘leverage’, ‘paradigm’ and ‘synergy’ (and probably others in the list as well) all have specific meanings, but they have been taken and re-branded as buzzwords. Don’t stop using them, just use them properly.

  • ApK

    Steven,
    “I think ‘bleeding edge’ should be the intensifier of ‘cutting edge’ rather than itself.”

    It was supposed to say an intensifier of “leading edge,” I’m sure.

    And I agree with many of your other points. In the writing in the IT industry, especially, many of those buzzwords are the correct word choice, and others like “take” as in “What’s your take on the situation” read to me more like pet peeve of Mark’s than an overused buzzword. 🙂

  • Roberta B.

    The situation descibed as keeping score at a meeting does imply that these buzz words mostly are spoken, not written, except that they are often used in brief and casual notes. Here are a few “other takes” on the definitions above:
    action item – is one that requires a decision (not just high-priority)
    bleeding edge – is an inenisification of leading edge (or cutting edge). yes – innovation.
    leverage – is more of an enhancement (as indicated) in a way that exceeds the actual resources (such as – a down payment on a larger loan amount), not just power.
    pushing the envelope – means going to the limits, not just maximum effort
    synergy – more than the sum of its parts
    thinking outside the box – is more like unconventional thinking, which also could be unorthodox

  • Sue Littlefield

    Working in aerospace was my first exposure to the practice of adding “ize” to a word in order to create a verb.
    I hated when someone would say that a chart needed to be bulletized. Apparently it was far too cumbersome to ask that someone please add bullet statements to a chart.

  • Kathryn

    ApK:
    Maybe I’m missing something, but I don’t see “take” in the list (and I would agree with your definition for “take” used by itself, although that definition was itself a buzzword awhile back. . .until it became a standard definition.) The phrase he highlighted was “take . . .offline,” which sounds a bit like a variation of “take it to the sidewalk” (“just step outside and say that”), although I gather it isn’t.

    Roberta B:
    I think Mark’s distinction between the meaning of leverage as a verb and its meaning as a noun is valid. I might not define the noun as power, but it is a distinct use from that of the verb, which does (as you both point out) generally involve enhancing the value of something to increase what it can produce. The noun, to me, still carries much of the original metaphor of increased ability to achieve a purpose by applying a (virtual) lever.

    I always find it fascinating, when contemplating catchphrases, to reflect on their actual metaphoric value, which too often gets abraded by overuse. Bleeding edge, for example: as noted, probably an intensification of cutting edge, in itself a near-synonym for leading edge (so possibly “bleeding edge is an eggcorn?). . .but what on earth is the speaker who says something is “bleeding edge” envisioning? Can it honestly be thought of as a desireable location?

  • Mark Nichol

    Action Item: At the end of the day, I have to step up to the plate: Perhaps I should acknowledged that, yes, they have valid contexts and are appropriate in moderation (I use several of them myself).

    However, I should also have annotated each of these terms to clarify that they earn a place on this ignominious list because of how, at interminable business meetings, their overuse achieves absurd proportions.

    During such unhappy occasions, speakers may hope to evoke a gonzo charisma by using them at every opportunity — or exude trendiness by attempting to go through a bingo card’s worth of them in a single speech. (If you haven’t already done so, go to the link I provide at the end of the post for a parody of this mind-set taken to a risible extreme.)

    I invite you, in this space, to supply nuance to these terms, such as the subtext I provided for “going forward” as a veiled rebuke. (Another example: “Let’s take that offline” often has a connotation of “We’ll talk about that cretinous idea of yours later . . . right after hell freezes over.”)

  • ApK

    1. Yes, I was thrown by the parenthetical break after “take” in “take offline.” That plus my background on film sets led my astray. Oops.

    2. In answer to Mark’s invitation, “2.0” sometimes has has the same sarcastic subtext of “New and Improved!”
    As in “So I shouldn’t fire you this time because you’re a whole new and improved person all of a sudden? ApK 2.0?”

  • Mark Nichol

    ApK:

    “New and improved” is admittedly one but rarely the other — and the same can usually be said of 2.0.”Well said.

  • Roberta B.

    @Kathryn “bleeding edge?” Can it honestly be thought of as a desirable location?
    No, it’s not a desirable location, but can be. The result of being at the leading edge and taking a risk may lead to success or to suffering damage. It’s not an eggcorn, but a play on words.

    Also, the list of buzz words represents a “cross-pollenization” of terms among lexicons – sports terms applied to psychology, chemistry terms used for business, etc. For example “‘at-risk’ youth” often is used in a sociological context but is financial term typically associated with assets. “Organic growth” is a trendy economic term taken from biology meaning true economic growth and not the result of acquisitions. They always get my attention, in an irritating sense, but I suppose they serve a descriptive purpose.

  • Doug Murray

    Many good pointers here but some of the definitions are new to me (maybe I don’t get out enough):

    “Action item” indicates priority? I’ve only encountered it in the sense of any item on a to do list, espectially from a meeting.

    “Mindshare” is the awareness a group has of an idea, not the simple expression of it; akin to name recognition.

    “Incent” and its illigitimate offspring refer to motivating specifically through consequences, positive or negative, as opposed to emotional, pep rally type motivation.

    These are not all bad. Many are jargon which can be useful in context, where highly specific definitions help insiders communicate easily and unambiguously. Of course, when allowed to escape, they are buzzwords.

  • Kathryn

    Roberta:
    “Play on words”–agreed. I kept thinking I was coming up with the wrong term–should have been more patient and waited until I had the right one. And your explanation makes sense of it–which I was struggling to do. Thanks!

  • Peter Stockwell

    Maybe it is a UK buzzword but ‘close of play’ annoys me – as in ‘We want that finished by close of play on Friday’. Something to do with cricket I believe.

  • Andy Knoedler

    I agree with ApK that “bleeding edge” probably comes from “leading edge”. This latter is an aeronautical term that refers to the front edge of an aircraft’s wing. This is a relatively sharp edge that cuts through the air, just as some ideas cut through the chaff that fills the atmosphere in many companies.

  • Andrew Toynbee

    Roberta B mentions that many of these buzz words are designed to be spoken, but can be used in casual notes. When they are utilised in emails, a great deal of confusion can arise.

    Our boss sent out an email (rather than simply speaking to the three of us in a twenty-five foot office) emphasising that mobile (cell) phones were to be set to ‘silent going forward’. This caused a great deal of discussion amongst the three of us as to exactly how our phones could be set to do this… I knew that my (then) Nokia didn’t have any sort of divert function that would forward calls.

  • Mark Nichol

    Peter:

    “Close of play” is, as far as I know, not used in the United States, but it reminds me of the memo shorthand COB: “close of business (day),” as in “Please turn it in by COB.” Why “Please turn it in by the end of the day” is insufficient for such purposes IBM (is beyond me).

  • Joanne

    “Solutions” is another word that is overused. At my company, we have solutions for everyone, even if they don’t have problems to solve.

  • Braden Talbot

    If you want to hear buzzwords, tune to our propaganda reports – news and politicians.

  • Larry Stein

    With respect to “metric,” does being on this list mean I can’t use the term in engineering papers? For example, if a paper deals with “efficiency” of a process then, to withstand peer review, the paper must state up front the “metric” of the efficiency. A statement of the “measure of the efficiency” introduces ambiguity; it may mean the metric, it may mean the instrument, it may mean a subjective value. So, until someone invents a replacement I’ll continue to use “metric.”

    As others have likely commented on this site, it is unfortunate that misuse or over use of a word operates to excise that word from the dictionary.

  • Mark Nichol

    Larry:

    As I and several commenters have intimated, buzzwords come under fire because they’ve been adopted to the point of absurdity and ridiculed to the point of parody: How many times do you have to hear mission-critical before you think, what’s wrong with important or essential or just critical?

    I’m not criticizing use of technical terminology in technical contexts at all — I’m calling for caution in the adoption of such as trendy marketing-ese.

  • Andrew Toynbee

    I’ve recently taken to mangling the Buzzwords. Watch your manager’s face when you refer to ‘sky blue thinking’ or ‘thinking outside the envelope.’
    Mischief? Maybe.

  • Steve Campbell

    This is such a long-running thread that it must have touched a nerve. Oops, did I just commit the crime we are bemoaning?

    Here is another example. The term “fund-raising” has twice fallen victim to buzzword-ization. First it became “development.” Now it has become “advancement.”

    An institution of higher education in my neighborhood now has – no kidding – a Senior Vice-President for Advancement. When I first saw that title, I honestly could not figure out what it meant. It means fund-raising, er, development. Whatever.

  • Frances

    I learned a new one just today: voluntold (being told that you’ve just volunteered to take responsiblity for a task).
    And for a bonus, we can add this word to our lists of new portmanteaus.

  • Business Writing at Word Nerds

    We have most of the same business writing buzzwords in Australia.

    A few years ago, a common one in Australian business writing was ‘drive’ and ‘driving’. For example, ‘to drive change’ and ‘driving innovation’. I don’t see it as much now in Australian business writing.

    People in corporate environments, who hear these words every day, probably have trouble keeping these buzzwords out of their business writing.

  • Gabrielle

    Why ‘utilise’ when ‘use’ is surely good enough? I have serious ‘issues’ with that (wrongly) and perpetually used word ‘issue.’ It drives me mad, but I can’t find a substitute other than ‘matter’, or ‘problem.’

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